Monthly Archives: January 2022

Bird Brain

Bird brains, love birds, storks bringing babies and Henny Penny running round complaining that the sky is falling. Just at a guess I think these would be the kind of associations that would spring to mind if I said I was going to tell you an evening of tales about our feathered friends. As ever, a trawl through the stories we used to tell two hundred years ago and more produces a very different picture.

Far from being foolish or simple, folk tale birds from an assortment of genera often demonstrate some of the most shrewd and subtle problem solving in the folk corpus. Aesop’s crow is probably the most famous of these conundrum crunchers, as he drops pebble after pebble in to a pitcher of water to raise the fluid until it is in reach of his beak.

In the Turkish tale of The Crow and the Snake, the strategy is taken to a higher level. The Crow, whose nest is at the top of a tree, has a problem with a snake that lives in a pit near the bottom. Whenever she lays some eggs the snake climbs up and eats them. After a consultation with a Jackal she forsakes the anger driven option of direct confrontation: pecking the snake’s eyes out might have been satisfying but would, the jackal points out, be very dangerous. Instead, our clever corvid steals a precious ring from a lady having a bath, makes sure that a number of people chase her, stays in sight of the mob until she is by her tree and then drops the ring in to the snake pit. To retrieve the jewellery the obliging humans promptly deal with her scaly problem for her.

This tactical leverage of third parties is quite different in character to the chicanery and deception of the trickster archetype, where the target is often destroyed by their own gullibility as the con artist stands beside them laughing. Avian reprisals tend to be a more surgical strike, delivered from a distance without risk that the enemy will catch on at the last minute. It is also largely free from the chaos and collateral damage often generated by the tricksters, to the extent that assisting a fowl with their sting can even be beneficial to those manoeuvred in to it.

When a wicked elephant tramples the nestlings of a lowly quail, she swears she will get revenge. The Elephant arrogantly taunts her as a weak and powerless creature. The incensed Quail does a kindness for each of a crow, a fly and a frog. When they enquire what they can do in return she asks the crow if it would be so good as to peck out the elephant’s eyes, an action the Crow is only too happy perform since eyeballs are a delicacy. The Quail then asks the Fly if she would mind laying her eggs in the Elephants ruined eye sockets, which is a bit like telling me I could repay you a fiver by going to the London Inn and buying myself a pint of Avocet, it is a perfect place for her larvae to develop. The Frog is requested to croak at the top of a hill and then climb down to the bottom of the steepest cliff and croak again. The blind and maggot maddened Elephant, desperate for water, follows the sound of the frog to the top of the ridge and then over the cliff to it’s doom. Thus, by coming together these four small and vulnerable creatures brought down a strong and powerful tyrant.

So be kind to birds and they will reward that kindness; upset them and they will not only take you down, but you will never see it coming. If that’s being bird brained then count me in!


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The Stolen Evergreens

I was just going to tell you a story again this month but I’ve run in to a snag. First I began to think that I had already written up this tale for you at some previous time and spent ages hunting through my archives to check. A useful activity since it showed me just how badly organised the archive was and spawned a fairly extensive re-organisation of my hard drive and updating of the catalogue. I did not find the story while I was at it.

Despite the total absence of evidence and only two missing articles that might be it, I remained unconvinced that I haven’t already told you this tale, it’s the one where a bird has damaged it’s wing and can’t fly south for the winter so seeks shelter amongst the trees. You know the one, the Birch, the oak and The Willow are all a bit offish and haughty, refusing to give the poor creature sanctuary but the Spruce and Pine offer shelter while the Juniper provides berries. The denouement coming in a conversation between the North Wind and the Frost King: the cold northern air asks if it can take all the leaves in the forest and the benevolent Frost King says “Yes, but do not touch the leaves of the Spruce Pine and Juniper for they were kind to the little bird.” and instant karma is delivered to the wood.

Having decided that I am not going to tell you that story, I went in search of a variant on the same theme. This is where things became really surprising. My extensive library of world folktale and myth has not one mention of why evergreen trees keep their leaves. The internet turned up a verbatim version of the folk tale outlined above but with one key difference: It was attributed to an author! One Florence Holbrook of Chicago to be exact. Horror of horrors! Could it actually be (gasps) Literature?

A further hunt for an original folkloric source revealed an even more terrible truth. A very slight variation appeared, the bird being specified as a sparrow, the oak and maple playing the part of the arrogant arboreals rejecting the avian, only the Pine giving charitable succour to the otherwise doomed feathery refugee, and “The Creator” handing out the appropriate punishment and reward at the end. This tight, economical version is credited as Cherokee and contains the bones that Holbrook appropriated for her construction back in 1904. How can I say this with such assurance? Since it is out of copyright, the full text of Holbrook’s Book of Nature Myths in which “Why The Evergreen Trees Keep Their Leaves” appears is available online if you search far enough, and in the preface she clearly states “The subject-matter is of permanent value, culled from the folk-lore of the primitive races; the vocabulary… is increased gradually, and the new words and phrases will add to the child’s power of expression. The naive explanations of the phenomena of nature given by the primitive races appeal to the child’s wonder about the same phenomena, and he is pleased and interested.”

So we have a tale, originally unique to the Cherokee people, taken for the education of the invading Europeans and over time stripped of it’s provenance to the extent that it is possible to find it and assume, by the way it is presented as an otherwise unspecified folk tale, that it is native to this continent. At this point the cultural appropriation is complete. I am not sure now if I shall ever tell this very fine story again, not wishing to profit from the proceeds of theft, but if I do I shall take care to credit the Cherokee nation for it’s genesis without insulting them as primitive, an odd accusation considering they have, in this myth, addressed a question apparently unasked across the rest of the world.

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The First Christmas Tree

The noise from his great hall roused Count Otto from his slumber. He was on his bed rather than in it, lying where he fell, exhausted from the day’s exertions. He had gone out riding with friends but, as is pretty much standard with nobility in folktales, he had become separated from his retinue and wandered lost in the woods until he had a strange experience. Stopping to refresh himself at a spring where the waters burst from a rocky cliff and fell in to a clear pool, he felt soft, delicate hands touch his in the water and the ruby ring he was wearing slipped from his finger. It was Christmas Eve so he made plans to come back on Boxing day with servants to drain the pool and retrieve his jewellery.

The spring, known as The Fairy Well, was a long way from his castle and by the time he got home he was beyond eating. Pulled from blessed oblivion by the sound of a merry throng at… he cast around for some clue of what the time might be and, almost as if on cue, the bells for midnight rang in the tower far above. He was saved from rage at being denied sleep by the hope that his thoughtlessly loud guests might have food. On opening the doors however all thoughts of, well everything, left his mind. It was neither his friends nor his servants carousing. Filling his hall was a host of Faeries, or was it Elves? Possibly Nixies, he shook his head, whatever, they were dressed in fabulous clothes of many bright colours, dancing to the sweetest of music. In the middle of the hall stood a fir tree which held amongst it’s branches all kinds of bejewelled bracelets, silver necklaces, golden handled daggers and diamond encrusted trinkets, sparkling in the light of the candles that stood between them.

As he took all this in, the dance ended, the couples bowed to each other and parted allowing an even more entrancing beauty to walk towards the baffled count, as he stood blinking at the splendour before him. Dressed in satin and velvet of rose and cream, a circlet of silver and sapphires holding her lustrous hair back from a face of exquisite, and lightly amused, attractiveness.
“I am Ernestine, queen of the fair folk” said the vision of loveliness in a voice of silk and well aged whisky, “I have come to return your visit… and something else”. Smiling, she reached in to her cleavage and drew out something that glistened in the light, her eyes staying firmly on his, she held out the ring that had vanished in the water.

Otto and Ernestine danced through the night. He was a handsome fellow, rich and well mannered, a big hit with the ladies of the noble courts, yet he had resisted subtle and blatant advances alike, until now. When the last waltz ended and the fairies, whom he had barely noticed for hours, began to pack up and drift off in to the mists of dawn, he threw himself down on one knee and begged her to marry him. She looked through him with half closed eyes for a moment, laid a hand on his hair and said “On the condition that you never speak the word ‘Death’ in my company.”

Their happiness together began on Boxing Day and lasted many years. One Christmas Eve though, as the Count and his guests prepared to go for their traditional ride in the forest, Ernestine tarried in her chamber. Otto paced the courtyard, the horses nibbled the lawn and the servants handed out a third round of spiced sherry. When the Fairy Queen eventually came down Otto blurted out “At last!”, then trying to make a joke, “You would make a good messenger to send for Death!” She stared at him horrified, the scream on her lips cut short as she disappeared before the startled onlooker’s eyes.

Frantic searches of the castle, Fairy Well and forest brought no joy, neither did their more conscientious repeats over the following weeks. Heartbroken and mirthless, Otto lived on, his threadbare hope driving him to erect a tree filled with light and treasure by the window of his hall every Christmas. As time passed the locals began to copy their Lord. The custom spread through Straβbourg… and eventually the world.

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The Invisible Horse

I went to a marvellous event the other day. A “Pop Up Curiosity Shop” run by Exeter, Bristol, and Bath Universities. Various research projects were reporting on their progress despite being only part way through. I learned about the human spine, ecclesiastical graffiti, worms in space, and a whole bunch of other very interesting stuff. The thing with research is that when the starry eyed explorers set off to find whatever it is they have set their scientific sights on, there is always a distinct possibility that they will find something else entirely.

Stories of bold knights and their gallant chargers, talking or otherwise, abound. I’ve told a few. The archetype of the knight couldn’t exist without his equine support. Artists paint palfreys gently cropping the turf whilst their armour clad master rests beneath a tree and writers pour out prose praising the noble beasts as they make the ground shake, thundering towards each other in the lists or hurtling at an enemy on the battlefield.

Yes, the Warhorse, tall as a house*, armoured like his rider, forming the formidable ranks of the Heavy Cavalry, the decisive military tool of so many battles. Each hoof the size of a dinner plate. The undisputed lynchpin of pre-musket strategy. Get enough noble knights on their massive chargers and the war was yours.


The stated purpose of one of the groups at the event was to find the true nature of the middle ages’ most famous animal, but they seem to have discovered that it is, in fact, as much of a mythical beast as it’s single horned cousin.

No bones of super sized stallions exist. No outsize shoes litter the battlefields. Contemporary artwork places Norman cavalry on creatures nearer to ponies. The saddles are all fairly slim, and no surviving armour was made for anything bigger than a fairly average horse. The weaponry of the knights does not include the extended blades and handles that would have been necessary to do any damage from such a great height.

Possibly the most famous phrase in archaeology (after “It was probably ritual”) is “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. In this case though, they not only found no evidence for the heavy horses of popular imagination, but significant evidence for much smaller, lighter, more manoeuvrable, mounts.

Authors of historical battle fiction who claim to have done their research are going to be upset. Likewise numerous historians and historical re-enactors. Personally I am quite pleased. It’s not everyday that you get given a new fantastical, story book creature that everybody already knows. The Warhorse is now entering the stables next to the Winged Horse, the Unicorn and the Kelpie, where they can all enjoy a nice chat together.
Thank you scientific research, I accept your gift with glee!

* A single story medieval house.

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Sink or Swim?

If you heard of a story that saved thousands of lives, could have saved thousands more, and might yet save tens of thousands if enough people heard it, would you want to know that story? It will be no surprise to you that I, having learned that such a legend exists am desperate to know the details.

There are some fascinatingly unusual and distinct tribes of people on the Andaman islands of Indonesia. The Onge, for instance, who limit outside influence to maintain their gathering and hunting lifestyle free from modern diseases, are a genetically distinct tribe who do not share the genes of Neolithic Iranian farmers or steppe pastoralists that much of the rest of the world have.

The nautically semi nomadic Moken spend a great deal of time collecting seafood, and thus have evolved advanced free diving capabilities, including improved underwater vision and an ability to slow their heartbeat so that they use less oxygen, doubling their time underwater.

Along with a handful of other officially “Particularly Vulnerable” nations, each of these groups has a very small population, dancing along the very edge of extinction. There were only 96 Onge alive in 2004 when a sub-aquatic earthquake sent a tsunami through the region on, what was to us, Boxing Day morning. Over 220,000 lives were lost. Anthropologists feared that entire races could have been relegated to history by the sudden inundation. On further investigation however, it turned out that every single one of the Onge, Moken and so forth survived, having headed inland and uphill as soon as they felt the tremors. How did they know what to do when so many other people from “modern” industrial cultures simply walked out on to the freshly exposed sea bed as the ocean gathered itself to strike? Of course, it was because amongst their folklore are tales in which a great shaking of the ground was followed by a massive and destructive wall of water surging in from the ocean.

This remarkable example of a life saving story demonstrates two things. Obviously the incredible value of story, but also the vast gulf of the understanding of that value between the Andaman culture and ours. Even the parents of people whose lives were saved by the tale had not been born the last time a tsunami swept their shores, yet generations later they were still telling the story, with sufficient vigour and frequency to recognise and follow the essential information contained therein as soon as it became reality.

Witness in contrast, the response of those who brought back the new story of how a story saved nations. Did they collect this life saving tale? Did they beg the Onge to speak the wonder that kept them from obliteration? Have they pleaded with the Moken to disseminate this priceless myth to the countries who lost so many loved ones? Can I find it online? No. All we have is a couple of news reports of how quaint it is that it happened. No one seems to have got as far as recording this proven, life preserving narrative for the benefit of the wider world.

I despair, I really do.

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The Silent Invention

Throughout history technological advances have produced stories about how they were made, who they were made by, or the changes they brought. Some are more common than others: nearly all civilisations have a tale about how mankind got fire from the gods, which is, in almost all cases, that we stole it. The thief, be they a generous god or a daring human, usually pays a price for their crime, experiencing a sentence of eternal torment. It seems the gods were very possessive about fire.

Brewing alcoholic drinks splits along gender lines: male protagonists steal the magical vessel that brews the divine draught, while women and goddesses invent fermentation themselves. Irrigation is invariably passed to early agricultural societies by their solar deities, who have become surprisingly generous since the flame filching incident. The rotary quern, commemorated worldwide in a tale that explains the salt in sea water, is nearly always initially obtained by trade with a demon… before being stolen… usually several times. Metallurgy is more varied and can be gifted by angels, gods, dwarves, or simply innate in the personality of a great king. Medicine tends to come to families through an ancestor from the fairy realm.

These are the more widely dispersed tales of great leaps forward. Various other inventions have been mythologised in single tales from specific places, tea for instance. As I have been quietly noticing these ancient echoes from the inventors workshops of the past, I have been rather struck by one particular area that remains totally silent. Not one single story I have come across details the inspired creation, deific giving, or daring heist, of the first wheel.

Surely the momentous construction of the very first, utterly unique, rolling conveyance – be it wagon, carriage, chariot or wheelbarrow – surely that device, that could carry something without it being on your back, head or arms, would leave some kind of track, some kind of rumble in the tales of the civilisation it first trundled in? However, not one god, goddess, angel or devil is credited with revealing vehicular transport in a high velocity vision; no hero or demigod is chained to a rock in never ending punishment for half inching wheel number one; none of the celebrated artificers have an episode in their saga where they solve a benefactors problems by axing up an axle. How is it possible that we have worldwide myths about the taming of fire, which we’ve been using for around one and a half million years, but not even a whisper concerning the invention of the wheel less than seven thousand years ago? Unless we are just not listening for the right sound.

What if the sound we should be listening for is rigging? Hear me out. The world that first saw wheeled locomotion had no name for the machine bowling past them. Nevertheless they had been skulling, rowing and, more recently, sailing for thousands of years. A plank built wooden construction, with sides and cargo may very well have been called a ship, even if it was rolling down the street. Now, ‘the ship that goes on land’ does exist in folktales, sometimes hunted out in a great quest, sometimes picked up almost accidentally alongside other magical items whilst searching for something or someone else. This land boat is highly desirable, very valuable, and most often traded off to a king for a barrel of jewels and the hand of a princess. Now, if it were already possible to truck produce around in carts who would be interested in a ship out of water? But if that “ship” was sailing on land using the first and only bogie, then that would be worth talking about for years, maybe even six thousand of them.

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Flippin’ ‘eck!

This may surprise you but there is a quite large and active storytellers community. I say community, we see very little of each other as it is rare to have more than one storyteller for an event, but we do communicate through the odd festival and, of course, online groups. Apart from asking each other for stories whenever we get a short notice booking on a topic we know nothing about, we obviously talk about how to keep the presentation of our corpus of ancient material vaguely relevant in the modern world.

“Should we present the tales unchanged to preserve the tradition?” Is met with a unanimous “No!”. After all they are preserved in their original form in countless books, libraries and archives. Changing the stories for the audience in front of you is the tradition! Mostly we agree that the wedding between protagonist and opposite sex royalty at the end of a tale can be freely dispensed with in favour of lifelong friendship and a business start up with the pot of gold as capital. This switch goes down really well with kids, especially with girls when the protagonist is female. And so we come to one of the topics that the community is slightly less unanimous about: gender flipping. This is a process by which Jack becomes Jade and the storyteller has to remember to say she and her instead of he and him through the whole story, taking extra care during the exciting bits. Why would one do this? Well, the main reason most of us give it a go at some point is that there are far more stories about boys and men than there are about girls and women. Hmmm.

Early on in my storytelling career I made an effort to source a balanced repertoire from tales in their original gender. As time has gone on I have found myself picking a theme for the halloween tour, only to find the corpus is largely devoid of women: Lycanthropy is a pretty much exclusively male curse; demon stories feature the male of the species. With an adult only audience it is possible to address this simply by pointing out that the imbalance is there, and is a product of the societies that produced the tales. With family audiences it is a different thing, children need representation.

I first gender flipped a tale quite late on a Sunday afternoon of a four day festival. The story I had decided to tell was a simple, upbeat trickster yarn featuring a boy and a boggart. The audience was, by chance, entirely girls and their mothers. Rather than hunt through my brain for a story with a female protagonist, I just re-cast the lead part with a girl. After that I occasionally gender flipped the main character where I felt it would work.

Then, I was given a Christmas present: a book of classic fairy tales that had been gender flipped by a computer algorithm. No editing has been done, the stories are in exactly the same words and sentences as when written down by Hans Anderson or the Brothers Grimm, except with absolutely every she turned to he and vice versa, right down to fairy godfathers and lizard footwomen. “Handsome And The Beast” maintains it’s narrative with nary a ruffle in it’s fur. “Cinder, or The Little Glass Slipper” trots along as implausibly as it ever did, even the ugly brothers tightening their corsets just embedding it more deeply in the fashion of the 18th century and the eponymous footwear being exactly as ludicrous on a male foot as a female one.

Back in the storytelling tent this summer I flipped a couple of my other regular stories just to see how they went down. “The shade Of The Cypress” pits a poor pedlar against a rich and arrogant merchant. The only other character is a magistrate. In the original all three are male and no one bats an eyelid. In the gender flipped version, the two business women visit the magistrate twice. The first time I used only the title of the office and left the sex of the magistrate unspecified, waiting until the climax of the story to slip in a gendered pronoun as the magistrate delivers the verdict. The effect on the female members of the audience when I said “she” was worth it. There was a palpable ripple of excitement, widened smiles, daughters and mothers turning to each other, sharing joy in the judgement between two women not being made by a man.

So I am now firmly in favour of gender flipping. Every little surprise, every time some part of ones brain goes “hang on” highlights a preconception, a bias, a conditioning in our perceptions of what men and women are or can be. It is frankly illuminating. Try it.

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I have dug out my Oxford Book Of Narrative Verse again. I do this every once in a while when I remember that I intend to learn and perform “The Keeping of The Bridge” by Lord Macaulay one day. It’s quite a task since it goes on for 11 and a half pages featuring 410 lines. It’s a stirring piece of writing! The alternating lines of tetrameter (8 syllables) and trimeter (6) are flexed and altered to great effect causing it to surge here and lean back there but always return to it’s energetic forward motion. The action, in which three soldiers, led by bold Horatius, hold an attacking army of thousands back while the bridge behind them is destroyed to stop Lars Porsena and the Etruscans* from sacking Rome, is thrilling stuff. It’s long. It is classic. It is heroic. You might even call it “Epic”, you would be wrong, but I think most people would let you get away with it.

This morning the postie delivered me a copy of the Mahabharata**. Now the Mahabharata is epic. 640 pages of epic, weighing in at half a kilogram in paperback! Originally composed in Sanskrit and forming a foundational text for the Hindu religion, it is the oldest and longest poem ever written with over 200,000 lines of verse and some chunks of prose as well. Size however is not the governing factor.

To be epic, a poem must have specific content and form. It must range across a swathe of time as well as paper, it must include gods. Aristotle maintains the poet must request the blessing of a Muse or other handy demi-deity of artistic inspiration before the action kicks off. Spiritual grovelling out of the way, the tale should begin in the middle and must have flashbacks.

For all his bravery, Horatius’s bridge defending fails on all three of these counts: The events all happen, not just in one day, but within a few hours; the temples of the gods are mentioned but the gods themselves are MIA and take no part in the proceedings; and the action, as if to make the King of Hearts proud, begins at the beginning and goes on till it comes to the end; then stops.

India has it’s own set of conditions for an epic to meet including descriptions of cities, seas, mountains, moonrise and sunrise, and a list of life events to include such as drinking bouts, love-making, a wedding, the birth of a child, a battle, the victory of a hero, and curiously, merrymaking in gardens and bathing parties. Despite Aristotle not having been born at the time the Mahabharata was completed, it still manages to meet all of his requirements as well as the local ones, making it not only longer than the Greek classics but more epic than the people who invented the word.

By this point you may have realised that “epic” is generally as misapplied as when someone calls their mate a legend for coming back from the bar with the drink they asked for… but I have another level to ad to your discombobulation. The origin of the term is the Greek “epos” which means “a word”, though also “a story”. This in turn is believed to derive from the Proto Indo/European root “wekw” meaning “to speak”. Such a simple beginning for a word, whose journey over time to its current meaning, could almost be described as itself: Epic.

* Not an eighties New Romantic pop group.
** I had actually ordered it, the Royal Mail don’t just randomly send me mythological source books from around the world.

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