Category Archives: stories

Send In The Lifeboats


One of the facilities provided to us by our brains is the ability to recognise patterns. Obviously I don’t just mean when we are watching midsummer murders with Bob from down the road and he suddenly points at the screen and says “My aunt Betty’s got those curtains!”. No, our pattern recognition includes everything we sense. It gives us a shorthand for managing our interaction with the world based on our experiences rather than having to process everything as a new thing all the time.

It is such a big part of our operating system that our pattern recognisers can get a bit carried away, joyfully offering us faces and animals when we are simply looking at clouds or burn marks on toast. Entertaining and free flowing conversations are the result of our internal librarians coming up with stories that have a similarity to the one that has just been told… and so are the stultifyingly dull ones. The tricky bit for most of us being when the librarians come back from a trip to the hippocampus looking apologetic with only a single, dusty, hand written post-it note, leaving us the option of blurting out what’s scribbled on it in the hope that it will trigger a response from someone else, or standing there silently looking like a rabbit in the headlights while the conversation dies, gasping, at our feet.

I see this ’empty shelf syndrome’ happen quite often after a Talesman performance when the conversation has come round to the fascinating similarities between stories from different parts of the world and someone suddenly discovers the only thing indexed in their frontal cortex that fits with the pattern is the old adage that, when it’s all boiled down, there are only seven stories. Now you’d think that I would be able to launch in to a discourse from there but I’m afraid that shelf in my head was just as much in need of a J cloth and a squirt of Pledge as anyone else’s. Thankfully our pattern recognition includes stalling dialogue and everyone sends out the communication lifeboats of witty interjection and wholesale embarrassment is avoided. Personally I hadn’t explored the root of this widely distributed myth of the reduced lexicon until today. I suspect that since I make my living from finding fresh tales to serve up every few months the mere suggestion that there might be a limited supply sends my subconscious in to denial.

The fabulously named Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch would appear to be the original author of the “seven plots” concept in the early half of the twentieth century. Fortunately for me his list takes the form of man versus seven adversaries including himself:

  1. man against man
  2. man against nature
  3. man against himself
  4. man against God
  5. man against society
  6. man caught in the middle
  7. man and woman

This clearly falls down on the basis of sexism and also fails to consider that humans might co-operate or do anything other than fight with stuff. Other cataloguers have come up with lists from 4 to 36 plots long, mostly confining themselves to literature or theatre. The most widely known today being Christopher Booker, who has also pegged his socks on the line at the number seven after taking 35 years to write his book. I suppose it will be only polite to give it a read sometime but at 25 quid a throw it won’t be anytime soon. Meanwhile the net has already nicked his list and shared it around. It begins with 1. The Quest and 2. Voyage and Return which, I don’t know about you, just sound rather similar to me. The best of the short lists in my opinion runs to eight thus:

  1. Cinderella: fulfilment after hardship
  2. Achilles: the Fatal Flaw
  3. Faust: or the debt that must be paid
  4. Tristan: the Eternal Triangle
  5. Circe: or the Spider and the Fly
  6. Romeo and Juliet: Boy meets Girl and whatever follows
  7. Orpheus: the Gift that’s Taken Away
  8. The Indomitable Hero: they keep on going whatever the odds

(It is sadly un-attributed in all the versions I found this time round, if anyone knows the original author please let us know).

However, as with all the other lists it misses out the “how it got it’s name” stories. These are not my favourite tales as they rarely have a proper plot. The general form being “Once upon a time a giant tripped over and where his knee dented the ground a pond formed. It is still called Giant’s Knee Pond”. It’s not much of a story but any list that doesn’t cover it is not a complete list of all the stories there are… and if they missed this widely used folk tale what else have they missed?

In the world of folk tales, academics identify stories by the Aarne-Thompson tale type index, a combined work that gives a number to each element of the stories, such as “Transformation to horse (ass etc.) by putting on bridle”, which will be familiar to those of you who came to see “The Dark Arts” tour and is Tale Type D535 in case you were interested. The Aarne-Thompson list Includes several different “How it got it’s name” variations and the index gets to 2500 without counting the decimals. That should see me right for work for some time so I expect I’ll stick with them… and next time I see the pattern of the conversation swinging round to the number of stories in the world I’ll have something on the shelf for my librarians to fetch.

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

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under stories

The Red Glass Lantern


This story is a special story because it did not come to me from a book, as most of my tales do, to be set free for other ears. I got it the old fashioned way, sat beside a fire at the Beautiful Days festival after my last late night set, floated on the air as a gift from another’s tongue. I feel almost guilty nailing it to the page in this way.

One day a man decided he would go in search of a land far away. Knowing that the way would be long and hard he packed only the bare essentials, which is to say he took nothing but the clothes he stood in and, since he might have to travel into the night to find places to stay, a simple, red glass lantern.

He walked for many days, sleeping where he could, trading news and stories for a bite to eat. After a time he came to the great forest. The forest was dangerous to cross because of the bandits who would take anything of value from those who sought to pass through. This was why the man had chosen to make his journey with so little and his stratagem worked. Seeing he had no purse on his belt and no possessions save a worthless red glass lantern the thieves let him pass unmolested.

Next he came to the a high mountain ridge and with his cloak pulled tight around him fought his way through wind and snow as the path wound upwards through narrow, rocky defiles; then blissfully downwards through more of the same; until at last he found himself stepping out of the rocks on to a slope terraced with rice paddies, overlooking a wide landscape filled with fields and farms. Down on the plain by the banks of the river he saw a great city.

The people marvelled at his outlandish clothes, the hue of his skin, the colour of his hair, and the stranger from the mountains was soon brought to the palace where the king spoke in a voice like thunder “Who are you that has dared to enter my kingdom? If you come in peace then you must give me a present worthy of my status. If I am not pleased then you shall forfeit your life!” Humbly, the man took to one knee saying “Your majesty, I have little but what little I have is yours, even though it be my life, please accept as the total of my worth the light that has guided me to your magnificence.” and he handed over the red glass lantern. They did not have glass in that country and the king was amazed. Never had he seen such a wonder. Delighted with the present he laid a sumptuous feast before the traveller, entertained him for days with music and dancing and heaped treasure at his feet. When the time came for him to leave the king gave him an honour guard of the fiercest warriors who carried the rich gifts in packs on their backs safely through the mountains and forest all the way to his home.

When he got home his brother was astonished and immediately piled valuables and food in to carts, gathered some friends and set off to make his fortune in the same way. As he passed through the forest the brigands fell upon his party, slew his companions, stole his goods and chased him in to the mountains. He escaped with his life, an old brass lamp and nothing more. When he was brought before the king and the king demanded a present he fell on his face weeping and begged the king to accept the brass lamp as it was all he had. They did not have brass in that country and the king was amazed “this is a wonder, never have I seen such a marvel. You must be rewarded. Unfortunately our treasure house has been emptied, nevertheless you shall have the most valuable thing in our kingdom!”
And so they gave him the most valuable thing in the kingdom.
They gave him the red glass lantern.

2 Comments

Filed under Rich and poor, stories, Storytelling

Fairy time


Fairies as such, are fairly limited in Geographic scope, being primarily a European phenomenon. Their name and characteristics can vary significantly across this area too, but there is a type of fairy encounter which is common throughout the lands, widely different in the specifics yet exactly the same in it’s outcome, and so prolific one has to wonder if there is some truth behind this tale type.

As is often the case with close encounters of the fairy kind the person, whether young lad, maiden or wandering drunk, who features in the story is captivated by faint musical, magical sounds. Following the entrancing harmony they come upon the Good Folk dancing, singing and making merry. Often they will watch unobserved from behind a tree or rock at first but soon the music will pull them into the whirling dance. It may be that they stay for a couple of hours, nights, weeks, or even three months. At the absolute maximum it might be seven years. It would seem that this period is full of intoxicating joy and pleasantness. Nevertheless, at some point they decide to head for home. On arriving back in their village, or castle they find many things changed and unfamiliar, all the people they knew are gone and their home is occupied by strangers. On further enquiry they find that their family are long dead and there is only a faint memory of a story about someone by their name having vanished without trace more than a lifetime or two ago. As they struggle to come to grips with this news they age rapidly and crumble to dust.

Sometimes the plot may have a longer set up. King Herla goes to a far land to witness the wedding of a fairy king; Oisin is wooed by a beautiful princess from the land of youth. In each case they return to discover hundreds of years have passed. Interestingly, in both of these cases a change of epic proportions has fallen upon the land. In Herla’s case he leaves a British King and returns to a land long under Saxon rule. The Irish Oisin leaves a pagan Eire and comes back to tell the tales of Finn mac Cumhal to a fascinated Saint Patrick.

Curiously it is by no means guaranteed that a sojourn in the Otherworld will lead to a powdery demise. Pwyll Prince of Dyfed manages to count off a year and a day in Annwyvn
with exactitude before coming home the same year and a day later in his own land. Many others come and go between the lands with less loss of time than I encounter whilst eating breakfast. Certainly the fairies themselves have no problem reconciling time between our two plains, happily making and keeping appointments accurately to the hour.

So are these tales based in fact? Possibly it was common for people to leave home without warning, maybe falling in with Romanies or other nomads in a rush of excitement after accidentally joining them for a few nights revels, then losing track of time before coming home to find their family had died in their absence. It is easy to see how the tale might be elaborated and exaggerated by re-telling until it spans hundreds of years.

…and yet, the rapid onset of the time spent in the land of youth and the ensuing sudden de-hydration are less easy to see being the creation of so many different storytellers in so many assorted places. So if you are out in the forest or on the moors of a night and your ears are assailed by the most delectable melodies you have ever heard, take thought before you let your feet follow the captivating rhythm: your life may never be the same again.

4 Comments

Filed under Faeries, Fairies, Fairytale, stories, Storytelling

Away With The Fairies


NOT A FAIRY.
“Changeling” by Robin Stevenson
More by him at https://www.pinterest.com/pin/142496775681932380/

I don’t use the term “fairytale” very often. It is odd that somehow the title “fairytale” has become a blanket term for any story involving magic. For me it is only a fairytale if it actually has a fairy in it. So how do we identify a fairy? Oh, Now we have entered a realm of confusion! I have several books purporting to be specifically about fairies (or faeries, we can’t even reach consensus on the spelling). These contain descriptions and tales of the wee folk by the various names of Spriggans, Pixies, Piskies, Sidhe (pronounced “shee”), Good Folk (I could go on but we’ve barely scratched the surface and haven’t even left the British Isles), but also feature Trow, Trolls, Koboldoi, Gnomes, Brownies, Nixen, Knockers and a host of other supernatural beings. It’s a bit like buying a textbook on humans and finding chapters on marmosets and grizzlies.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Irish Book Of Invasions tells us that at one time the land of Éire was in possession of the tall, fair skinned Tuatha De Danann. Long lived and wielding powerful magic the Tuatha De held truth and fairness in high esteem and many stories are told of their time. Then the Milesians, whose descendants are the current Irish, turned up, fought the Tuatha De for the land, won, and banished the Tuatha De Danann in to the ancient burial mounds that litter the country where they still live as the Sidhe or faery host.

Since their banishment the Fair Folk have interacted with humans in a variety of ways. Women and men from each race have fallen in love with, seduced or abducted and married someone from the other; items have been stolen by each from each and favours, trades and deals have been done leading to both lasting happiness and deep sorrow.

One of the oddest things about The Ever Living Ones is that they appear to be shrinking. The Tuatha De were considered tall against humans. A few hundred years ago elves were generally perceived as around three or four feet tall. The modern apprehension of the size of a fairy is probably between ten and twenty centimetres. What they have lost in stature they have made up in utility, having apparently grown wings along the way. However, just incase you thought you were getting a handle on them, some can switch from small to large if they wish.

Probably the most consistent thing about fairies is that they are attractive to human senses: they are beautiful to gaze upon, their music and voices are sweet to the ear and the smell of their food ravishing to the nostrils. Whether short or tall, a glimpse of the Good Folk fills the mortal observer with wonder, delight and curiosity, but beware, they are very choosy about the humans they will share their wonders with and many who have blundered excitedly in to the revels of the Fae have suffered for it afterwards.

Now it seems your humble Talesman has fallen under their spell, for my spring tour will be “Away With The Fairies” and I shall be reading everything I can about them over the next three months, so no doubt you will hear a little more about them too.

Leave a comment

Filed under Faeries, Fairies, Fairytale, stories, Storytelling

…and Things that go Munch in the Night


It’s that time again, as darkness falls upon the land and the dead rise from their crypts to walk amongst us, reaching out with cold, unfriendly fingers to suck life from the living… though I hope my previous wafflings on this subject have shown that the dead are exactly that and can do us little harm beyond spilling our cocoa in mild surprise at their re-appearance. It was a noticeable feature of several of the stories that I came across in my research for last year’s “The Raven and other Underworld Journeys” that the doors to the land of the dead are firmly shut and once you get down there you are not coming back. If the conditions are right you might be able to get a phone call through though.

Originally the late October feast, Samhain (pronounced Sawain) in the celtic language of the Britons back before the Romans came here, was a time to relax and enjoy the fruits of the years labours; the storehouses were full from the harvest and the year’s work was done. At the death of the year and the thinning of the veil between past present and future, it was also a time to give thanks to and commune with the ancestors, an opportunity to seek advice from late Uncle Jack or Grandmother Jane. With the coming of Christianity the tradition of talking to deceased relatives went from normal to dark and terrible. Since then our low mortality rates and hurried funerary practices have distanced us from death to such an extent that we no longer have the psychological means to deal with it, our collective terror of death being so great that we have demonised the dead themselves. The result of this is a vast mountain of zombie flicks in which the touch of the dead can transform even our nearest and dearest in to ravenous fiends hungry for our brains, at least one of the gang of plucky survivors having to pull the trigger in the face of their best friend or closest relative.

Our fear of re-animated corpses and ghosts is all in our minds, a projection of our fear of death and could be easily laid to rest by accepting deaths inevitability and celebrating the lives of those that have passed on before us. Needless to say I will be leaving the waking dead for the movies to deal with. If you want something to be scared of, and it would appear that many of you do, then I would choose the living.

For the spooky season this year I shall be concentrating on beings far more likely to creep in to your bedroom under cover of darkness and fasten their fangs in your goose-bump covered flesh than zombies or ghosts. My Halloween tour takes me from Evolution in Exeter on the 18th October, across the country to London and back with eleven gigs on the way ending on November the 9th at the Skittle alley of my local pub, the London Inn in Morchard Bishop. My entourage for this spine chilling venture will be “Goblins, Ghouls And Long Legged Beasties”… all of them very much alive!

 

Goblins, Ghouls and Long Legged Beasties tour poster

Leave a comment

Filed under Autumn, Halloween, October, Samhain, Spooky, stories

Get Lucky


I’m packing the tent in to the car again, along with my blackboard, drums, hat stand and four foot Dane Axe; it’s funny the things that you gather as part of your job. Storytellers of yore are always assumed to have wandered on foot with nothing more than a bit of bread and cheese from their last friendly host. I’m beginning to think this unlikely and suspect donkeys of yore found ready employment lugging bard’s harps, tents, sleeping bags and assorted tat of the trade around the country. I’ve only been home for a couple of days and barely caught up on my sleep after Wickham Festival where I finished each day with the popular “Late Night Child Free Story Chill” after the main stage closed down. This left me closing up the Storytelling tent at gone midnight and only just getting to the bar in time for a post work pint before it closed… but on a festival site there is always someone who has just come off shift, stall holders, stage crew, caterers; professional nomads all, we happily chat in to the wee small hours to the constant thrum of the generators… and wake at 7 as the sun turns our tents in to ovens.

 

Often, when I tell people that storytelling is my full time job they will respond with “Aren’t you lucky! What a great job to have.” and they’re right, it is a great job.

 

There is a story that inhabits the entertainment industry. It gets dragged out every couple of years by film producers to support their latest offering. Sometimes there is a prequel about how they auditioned thousands of hopefuls or were let down by a big name at the last minute, but the meat of the story is always that the director walked in to a supermarket and discovered their new star working behind the counter. “Like a latter day Cinderella” the press releases say; “A modern tale of rags to riches”. It’s a great story but it is just that, a heart warming yarn that fills you with hope… and makes the audience warm to the character played by the lucky store hand. The missing part of this story is that the actor – and they are already an actor, the job at the supermarket is only a fill in while they are “resting” – has been sending their CV to the director in question for months, they may even have been in for an audition. Sure, the meeting in the supermarket happens… but the groundwork has been laid, in both publicity and skills.

 

Now I’m not saying that luck doesn’t come in to it, there are definitely lucky breaks, but if you are already on the road the chances of a lift are far higher than if you are sat on your back porch. All the professional nomads who live at festivals through the summer have put in the hours and developed their skills. Whatever it is that fills your dreams, you can set off towards it, and if there is no lucky break then you get an excellent journey!

 

My big break is still waiting to show itself but I am doing all I can to make sure I can take it if it comes. One more step on the way is that I have been nominated in the British Awards for Storytelling Excellence this year, http://www.storyawards.org.uk/ please check out the competition and vote even if it’s not for me, we can all do with a leg up after all. I may not make the shortlist but there is always next year.

 

So, who knows? Maybe I’ll get spotted by a producer and turn up as the next Doctor Who, it would still be a rags to riches, meteoric rise to fame, but in the meantime I’ve got a pretty good job, I’ve worked hard for it but I’m lucky to be The Travelling Talesman.

 

*** This months FTC is dedicated to all the litter pickers, stewards, caterers, security teams, lampies, noise boys and girls, marquee erectors, toilet cleaners, shower operatives, stage managers and everyone who works stupid hours behind the scenes to make festivals run. Thank you all.

 

2 Comments

Filed under stories, Storytelling, Summer

Nothing to Fear


The word Goblin is nowadays almost inseparable from the word “horde”. We imagine these short, ugly, ravening creatures of evil hanging out in great gangs in the wastelands of old forests and abandoned mines waiting to feast on the flesh of unwary travellers. Tolkien is largely responsible for the modern concept of misshapen malevolence in insect like legions. Folklore rarely sees goblins in such numbers, in fact, it rarely sees them at all and they would only appear to have been with us for about six hundred years under the name in question. So what are they and where did they come from?

The earliest appearance in British literature tells of a hillock in the midst of a dense wood where a tired knight might call out “I thirst!”

A pointy nosed and pointy eared goblin amuses himself dropping leaves from a cliff

“Leaf Goblin” A sympathetic rendition of a goblin by fantasy artist Marc Potts. More of whose excellent work can be seen at http://www.marcpotts.co.uk/

and immediately find himself in the presence of “a Goblin with a cheerful countenance, clad in a crimson robe, and bearing in his outstretched hand a large drinking-horn richly ornamented with gold and precious jewels, full of the most delicious, refreshing and unknown beverage. After the drinker had emptied the horn, the Goblin offered a silken napkin to wipe the mouth. Then, without waiting to be thanked, the strange creature vanished as suddenly as he had come.” Hardly terrifying. Typically an arrogant knight nicked the generous forest dweller’s horn and he withdrew his services.

With little to go on the folklorist generally turns to etymology to trace the origins of supernatural beings. It appears the word goblin may have been derived from the German “Kobold”. Now, the Kobold is a house spirit, famed for their domestic usefulness and their ability to remain unseen. They were sufficiently common that most houses had one who was looked after with great care, having food left out for them on a daily basis. As with any invisible helper, it was a bad idea to try to see them and one story tells of a persistent burgher throwing ashes around the room to make the kobold, King Goldemar’s footprints apparent, resulting in the householder being dismembered, roasted on a spit and eaten.

As the religious fervour of the middle ages took hold, these pagan house spirits fell out of favour and were, along with witches and the like, demonised. Stories of their helpfulness were told less often than the tales of them turning nasty on overly inquisitive humans; whilst the original message of such narratives, treat all beings with respect, was replaced with the implication that we should fear the unknown and the supernatural.

They say there is nothing to fear but fear itself and the goblin is a fine example of that truism, fear having turned the commonplace in to something fearful. The goblin as we know him now is a horror of our own making. Their willingness to assist mankind for the price of a meal, a roof over their head and a little privacy as to their appearance has been rejected, leaving thousands homeless and desperate roaming the wastes of our imagination… and they’re hungry.

4 Comments

Filed under Folk Tale, Goblins, Invisible Helper, stories