Monthly Archives: November 2020

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Legend, Viking

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Storytelling

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

Leave a comment

Filed under public speaking, Storytelling

Giochi Senza Frontiere


This week I’ve been making videos for a band I used to go on tour with until a few years ago. We used to head off to northern Italy most years for a week or 2, playing gigs to a few thousand Italians in Bologna, Parma and other towns that we Brits mainly know because of the specific type of food we eat that supposedly came from there*. The band plays Welsh folk rock, is called Here Be Dragons and is run by my mate Mike.

When Here Be Dragons go on tour, Mike (being Welsh) always brings this little foam filled rugby ball along to chuck around, it works as a combined team building exercise and time filler whilst waiting for things to happen, which is, apart from sitting in a van, mostly what one does on tour. You wait for venues to open, wait for promoters to arrive, wait for sound engineers to turn up, wait for sound checks to start, wait for audiences to come, wait to be given keys for the accommodation, wait for taxis, wait for planes…

Once upon the end of a tour, having unusually had a decent nights sleep and not had to catch the plane at an hour in the low single digits, we were all packed and hanging around outside the hotel for the van to pick us up and take us to the airport. Out came the foam filled rugby ball. Thus we had it in hand as we entered the departure lounge.

We were gently chucking it around while we waited for our luggage to be checked in, as we queued to have our passports looked at, being silly, laughing, getting looks. The instrument cases, going in the cabin to avoid being destroyed by the baggage handlers, gave away our status as musicians so people accepted our playfulness. Big kids.

After all the usual walking down corridors, getting on and off escalators and travelators, we were directed in to a big glass room with plastic airport seating along the sides and a back to back row down the middle. Around a hundred people of various nationalities all waiting together for our winged metal tube to arrive. The band waited as we had been waiting for the last two weeks: we threw the ball back and forth.


Then the plane was delayed. Everyone was getting bored. Except us. We were getting more adventurous and spreading out, moving further away from each other as we got more confident of our aim.

It started with the occasional missed catch, when the ball would roll gently to some stranger’s feet and they would pick it up and throw it back to the big kids… a couple of throws later one of us would pass it to them deliberately. Passengers losing interest in their books or phones watched the fun going on, and if any of them caught our eye we would lob it to them too.

Language, culture and age barriers all melted away like morning mist. Soon they weren’t just throwing back to us anymore, they were looking out for anyone who might be a willing recipient, bringing other people they had never met or spoken to in to the game. Then that became the thing to do and it was obvious that throwers were trying to find a pass receiver who had not taken part previously, hunting for a hopeful face on the far side of the room. Soon, I am fairly sure, all but one person had caught and chucked the ball at least once… All but one man sitting in the central block who was, almost pointedly, reading his pink Financial Times, held high in front of his face. The ball was passed to a young lad sitting nearly opposite. The lad looked around and realised what I have just told you. The whole room seemed to hold it’s breath as he took aim and launched the ball directly in to the paper.

Thankfully, paper man found the incident amusing and we all laughed, able to breathe again. Maybe it was his lad, though I’m not at all certain. Our jet finally arrived, an hour and a half late, but unusually after such a delay, everyone boarded with a smile.

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

* A sauce that goes on pasta and thinly sliced pig respectively, in case you were wondering

Leave a comment

Filed under Touring, performance

The Fox and The Crow


There is a tree that stands by the edge of the wood where tame fields meet wild trees. It has a dead branch sticking out straight at just the right height for Crow to sit.

Fox was hungry. Fox was always hungry. He had been through the fields and round the barns but found nothing. He headed back towards the woods. There he saw Crow sitting on her branch… and Crow had a chunk of cheese in her beak.

Fox stopped under the branch and looked up
“Ah! Crow how wonderful to see you!”
Crow cocked her head on one side.
He continued, smooth as the finest silk,
“I was hoping I would run in to you, since we last met I have only had one thing on my mind”
Crow looked down at him with one eye and then the other.
“It is your delightful voice that I wish to hear. Please sing for me Crow, bring joy to all the wood with your melodious song!”

Crow had never been praised like this and it made her ruffle her feathers.

“Oh, please do not be bashful Crow. Sing for us and make the field bright with your mellifluous tones, bless us with the balm of your beak.”

Overcome by Fox’s flattery, crow could hold back her overture no longer.

She opened her beak and let out… a rasping “CAW!”

The cheese fell from her beak. Down it fell and Fox snatched it out of the air.

“Oh Crow that was delightful, thank you. I knew something wonderful would happen if you opened your beak.”

He said and, licking his lips, Fox went on his way.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

Leave a comment

Filed under Folk Tale, Fox stories, Talking Animals

It Aint What You Shoe It’s The Way That You Shoe It


A vast amount of what I did for the first month of the first lockdown was extensively and minutely deconstructing Cinderella variations. It started as a process to identify what exactly a Cinderella story is, what elements are present in all of the different versions. I say “all of the versions”, There are more than 700, some scholars claim over a thousand. I’m collaborating with another storyteller and together we are examining in detail a sample of 21 stories, carefully selected through rigorous, scientific criteria such as “We’ve got to have this one: there’s a talking horse in it!”.

Inspired by questions like “Do all Cinderella’s have a Fairy Godmother?” (Nope. Not by a long way), or “How many have wicked step mothers?” (significantly less than half), we have uncovered some shocking statistics. Our perception of the story has been altered to a point that will be hard to explain in the time available for a theatre show. One of the surprising revelations being that the apparently desirable royal male is far from the bland, two dimensional, characterless but handsome, Identikit prince that we initially thought.

I wrote In January about the problem with princes failing to recognise the heroine and going away with a step sister who has cut her toes off, but that is just the tip of the deeply disturbing princeberg. In the popular imagination, a glass slipper being taken around to all the women in the country until the ash covered kitchen wench puts her foot in it and is re-united with her paramour, sits at the centre of the Cinderella myth. Statistically though, only one out of the full seven hundred styles a slipper of glass, and a mere half of the tales in our sample feature footwear of any sort. So bear in mind that, Out of the 21 ‘princes’ we have looked at (some are kings, some are just rich blokes), the following litany of dodgy shoe related behaviours take place within only twelve tales and our experience so far is that even worse are likely to come to light if you look any further.

Four of the princes, having become enamoured of their respective sink skivies, are unable to find out who they are or where they come from. In two of these cases the posh plonker hasn’t even attempted to engage the object of his “affection” in conversation or considered asking her directly. The other two have asked but, despite getting no answer, have failed to get the hint. These four delightful examples of regal breeding take it in to their heads that they have a right to know and that the best way to find out is to obtain one of her shoes. This they set about doing by taking tar (or in one case, honey) and spreading it all over the exit of a public building. Nobody questions this and no charges are brought.

One prince obtains the hapless girl’s shoe by sending a servant to pursue her coach until, in her hurry to get away, she sheds a slipper. Another takes matters in to his own hands and, grabbing her foot as she tries to ride away from the church, hangs on until he hauls her multicoloured mule from it’s mount.

Four more royal males begin a search for our leading lady without ever having met her: they simply find her little, lost slipper and become obsessed with marrying the woman whose foot would be small enough to fit. The two, so called, lovers do not exchange so much as a word before the testing of the tiny treads brings about their, usually instantaneous, wedding. That’s a full 20% of cinderella stories being basically a shoe fetishists fantasy.

Most of the twelve slipper searchers simply announce that they are going to marry the woman who can get the slipper on. No further proposal is made. In fact out of the entire cohort of monarchical muppets, only two actually ask the female protagonist if she wants to marry him and only one gets a positive answer, but all of them end up married regardless.

This reveals a dizzying level of assumption and entitlement on the part of the sovereign slipper snatchers and a terrifying lack of choice or control for the women involved. If you have ever told one of the seven hundred or more Cinderella stories to a child, it might be worth having a think about what they are being trained to accept, or even aspire to, when their impressionable young ears hear it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinderella

It WasA Dark And Stormy Night


The folk process is an endlessly fascinating and wondrous thing. Much like genetic evolution, mutations and variations creep in with every repetition until eventually it has either become something else entirely or lost it’s ability to survive. Sometimes a story will change to suit a warmer or wetter climate, sometimes it may find that it’s feet are no good for a new terrain and it will take to the wing…

I accidentally stumbled across an example of the breadth of variation brought on by oral transmission of even a very simple four line trope. Storm Ciara was doing her best to wreck the fences out the back and I found myself typing in to Facebook:

“It is night
It is dark.
It is stormy.
The rain is falling down in torrents.
If you are a skipper, please, please turn to your mate and ask them to tell you a story.”

Now, if none of this rings a bell I must first ask if you have been hiding under a rock and then go on to explain that I first heard this famous opening from my father at tea one evening, long before I began my explorations of storytelling. Some reference had been made to entertaining with a tale and Dad suddenly came out with,

“It was a Dark and stormy night, and the rain fell down in torrents, and the Skipper said ‘tell me a story’, so the Mate began…”

The Mate of course begins his story “It was a Dark and stormy night, and the rain fell down in torrents, and the Skipper said ‘tell me a story’, so the mate began…”
and so it goes on…
This delivered with great gusto, my father’s eyes wide, long arms gesticulating with outsized hands (all traits which he passed on to me very much unchanged!). As a child, I remember the infinite, helical nature of the story that never ended, but also never really started, forming a chain of stories within stories stretching through immeasurable, parallel stormy nights, being quite mind blowing.

Within minutes of my post I had variations pouring in “In my childhood, it was always the mate who asked the captain for a story.” said Anne.

Viv commented “my dad’s was …” it was a dark and stormy night, and the wind began to howl, and captain jack to captain jo said tell me a story and this is how the story began… “”

“It was a bright and sunny afternoon” quipped Robin.

The inevitable internet search found only one reference to this widely known eternal tempest, on a joke page in reddit:
“It was a dark and stormy night on buffalo hill… a group of bandits sat around a campfire… one of the bandits said to the captain, “tell us a story captain… ” etc.
Which readily demonstrates the stories adaptation to the inland terrain of the American continent.

And so it spirals off in to the distance. I wonder where this strangely evocative collection of words will end it’s journey, if it ever does… maybe in some far distant future a space captain will gaze out of their bridge at some twisting nebula flashing with electrical discharge, and as the stellar wind batters their fragile craft they will turn to their Mate and say “Tell me a story”…

Leave a comment

Filed under Folk Tale