Category Archives: Storytelling

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.

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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.

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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.

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Filed under Faeries, Fairies, Fairytale, stories, Storytelling

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.

 

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Filed under stories, Storytelling, Summer

Powerful Stuff


Recently I’ve seen lots of people are describing themselves as storytellers. The term is applied to film directors, authors and journalists (with some justification) but I’ve also seen it commandeered by marketing firms and a company of “change consultants” who actually named themselves The Storytellers. Facebook calls stuff you post “stories”, even if it’s just an automatic post created because you click “like” on a page about poodle shaving (not a euphemism). Storytelling is a popular concept. The reason for this is that it is powerful stuff and in skilful mouths it can change the world. The most famous book in the world is a book of stories and the most famous person in all history was a storyteller*. Here’s an updated version of a tale that appears in one and is attributed to the other:

An ordinary man was driving through Manchester on a main road. He stopped at some traffic lights and a gang of thugs car-jacked him, beat him, stripped him of everything of value including his clothes and left him on the pavement. As he lay there bleeding and barely conscious a tabloid journalist walked up but, on seeing the man he crossed the street and went on his way. Soon after, a peer of the realm also skirted round the fallen man. Next an East European immigrant came along. Seeing the battered victim he stopped and called an ambulance, then stayed with the man by his hospital bed, helping the nurses tend him until he had regained consciousness and his relatives had been found.

You probably recognised the story about half way through and are maybe wondering about the adaptations. The parable of The Good Samaritan has become somewhat diluted by time and use, it’s meaning nowadays often being seen as little more than “be good to strangers”. The part played here by a journalist was originally a Judaic priest, someone who the predominantly Jewish audience that Jesus was speaking too would see pretty much every day, and by whom they would be given constant instruction on how to live their lives. Even if you strenuously avoid the tabloids the stories they choose to tell become the lead stories for the television news and the subject of conversations with friends. In modern Britain we have no cognate for the Levite (the original second passer-by), a hereditary position with the responsibility for reading certain passages and services in the temple; the only hereditary positions of power in our society reside in the House Of Lords. At the time of the first telling of this tale the Jews had a pretty poor view of the Samaritans, who were very closely related being Israelites who had not gone in to exile in Babylon and followed their own version of the Torah. There were plenty of candidates for the role of the Samaritan.

So in the telling of this tale Jesus was making a series of points, challenging prejudices and assumptions. The main thrust being that goodness rests not in who you are but in what you do and whether you are prepared to do it for everyone, even those who may despise you. It is a masterful piece of storytelling, extraordinarily compact with hardly a word more than the bare minimum necessary and packed with meaning. The bit that is often overlooked from our modern perspective is that he was having a massive dig at the established voices of moral behaviour in his society, essentially calling them hypocrites… but indirectly through the story.

The thing that the 21st century would be storytellers have in common is that they are trying to influence us, to change our behaviour. How much effect they have depends on how many of us repeat their yarns. We have to be careful how much of the tattle of the tabloids we pass on and which facebook memes we share, editing out anything that is filled with prejudice and hate. Having filtered those that might do good we must be skilful in passing them on so that they remain potent. It can be a tricky business, this storytelling; Jesus was such a powerful storyteller that the establishment killed him for it.

* Though I did find an online poll that put Michael Jackson ahead!

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The Wrath Of Thor


I’m taking a set of Viking tales out on tour at the end of February, which is, for me, a return to what I started with. At my very first storytelling I told three tales of the Norse gods, one of which, “The lay of Thrym” more commonly known as “The Theft Of Thor’s Hammer”, has remained in my ‘ready bag’ almost continuously for the twenty something years since. Almost. There are many reasons why a teller will drop a story, maybe we become over familiar and begin to gabble through it, or some other tale with too similar a theme takes our fancy; fear that one may be struck by lightning is not generally amongst them.

Possibly the most accurate image of Thor on the internet by Canadian artist Daniel Andrews. Note: iron gloves, belt of strength, sensible clothes, red hair and beard, iron hammer, absence of winged/horned helmet. You can find more of his work here http://danielandrews.ca/

Thor is the popular, people’s god, the adventuring bearded redhead who protects mankind, gods, elves and dwarves from the constant threat of the Frost Giants with the aid of his magic hammer, Mjollnir. One morning Thor woke up to find Mjollnir had been stolen. After much hullabaloo in Asgard, the home of the gods, it transpired that the thief was none other than Thrym, the king of the giants. Thrym’s terms for the return of the hammer are that Freya, the beautiful fertility goddess, is sent to be his bride. When the gods cook up a plan to send Thor in a wedding dress and veil he is at first somewhat reticent but eventually Loki, offering to tag along as a bridesmaid, persuades him. The ensuing scene in the giants hall builds as Thor all but gives himself away, while Loki cleverly keeps the laughably dense Thrym in a state of ignorant excitement until Mjollnir is brought forth to bless the wedding. After Thor is reunited with his weapon it is all downhill for the giants and, leaving them lying in the blood drenched hall he and Loki head back across the sky in Thor’s chariot. The thunder rolls, the rain falls and the ice of winter is washed away.

This tale is rooted in the very serious struggle against the cold northern winters, but in a time when the Scandinavians felt familiar enough with Thor to not only worship but have a laugh with him, it developed in to a comic interlude in the mythological cycle with the reluctantly cross-dressing sky god as the main source of the humour. As my own performance of this classic developed I portrayed Thor as less and less intelligent. Audiences were increasingly amused by my befuddled thunderer.

One fine sunny, summer’s day I was playing a festival in Romsey, a great location with around 150 people gathered to enjoy live music, beer and storytelling in a historic garden. After a couple of other stories, I launched in to “The Theft”. About half way through, just as Thor and Loki were preparing to set of for Thrymheim, it began to cloud over. Then the rain began to fall, harder and harder, until the audience had to run for cover. A month later I was the entertainment for two hundred eager scouts huddled around a camp fire. Once again the weather was clear and fine until I began “The Theft”, whereupon it quickly deteriorated in to driving rain. We decamped to the marquee where it was almost impossible to finish the story because of the water thrashing against the roof. When another beautiful day was ruined as the same thing happened for a third time, this time augmented with thunder, that I recognised the pattern and began to worry about lightning strikes.

You can’t leave a good story untold though, so when I was telling some friends about the experiences above I ended with a public apology to Thor, and have taken care ever since to keep my portrayal of the God of Storms a bit more respectful. So far it seems to be working, I have not been struck with a hundred thousand volts and even this summer I was able to get to the end of the tale with the sky blue and the audience dry. It will probably get a few tellings on my Viking Raid in Feb and March*, if I do it well enough it might keep it from snowing.

*Currently confirmed dates:
Thursday 28th Feb The Ale House, Reading
Sunday 3rd March The Elm Tree, Cambridge
Monday 4th March The White Lion, Norwich
Tuesday 5th March The Devonshire Arms, Cambridge
Saturday 9th March The London Inn, Morchard Bishop, Devon

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Filed under Mythology, Norse Gods, Storytelling, Thor

The Night Is Always Darkest Before The Dawn


Of course, if we didn’t muck about with the clocks, the night would be darkest at around midnight through the simple action of our patch of the earth being turned 180 degrees away from the sun*. Technically, I suppose that is before the dawn, but in an obvious, predictable and non-oppressive sort of way. Taken literally, the statement is a truism of little value… so let’s not do that.

Taken metaphysically, it becomes an aphorism of significant power, most often heard when your life has not only gone down the toilet but been down there for some time, and a fresh load of foulness has just landed on your head. But it is not it’s use as a bleak blanket of comfort, a cold intimation that there is hope to be had in the pit of despair, that I wish to examine; it is the implied acceptance that the bottom of the light-less sump of the sewer system is the only place to go once things start going wrong, that “better” is only achievable via “worst”.

We like the outline a great deal, endless horror movies have this as the only plot; the fantasy genre is full of it; even rom-coms require the leading lady to be broken down in tears and humiliated before the final kiss is allowed to happen. In terms of excitement it is all very well, but what is this story form really teaching us?

It may be efficacious when doing depth psychology to go digging in the dirt for the pearl of wisdom, but in every day life this paradigm is probably not healthy. Take the story of a man called Scott who, a hundred years ago this year, immortalised himself and a bunch of plucky Brits by pressing on in the face of adversity, upper lips artificially stiffened… failed totally and died in the process. We are so obsessed by the idea that suffering is noble in itself and that some magic talisman of salvation will come to us if we just make life hard enough, that we have raised this overconfident and inexperienced public schoolboy to the status of a saint: Scott of The Antarctic! But Scott was not overcome by circumstance: he went out to the harshest of the worlds environments deliberately and with remarkably little in the way of appropriate experience. Instead of using dogs to pull the heavy sleds he used ponies and then men, making the whole unnecessary job considerably harder than it needed to be. He also got off to a slow start, took a tricky route and didn’t set up his supply dump in the right place.

A man in heavy skins stands in snow next to a Norwegian flag with a sled and a team of dogs

Roald Amundson at the south pole. Smiling and looking very casual. Clever chap.

Why do we not hear more about the Norwegian who knew about cross country skiing; spent a couple of years learning how to handle dog teams from people who live on ice all the time; set off as soon as the weather was good following the easiest route; got to the south pole first and came back without losing a man or getting caught in any storms?
His name was Roald Amundson and he had already been the first to traverse the North-West Passage, and having got “First to the South Pole” under his belt went on to be first to have visited both poles. Surely he deserves the epithet “Of The Antarctic” and should be the role model we aspire to?

I’m not sure how we go about it but I wonder if it’s time we started telling some different stories? Stories in which things get sorted before they go horribly wrong, people get saved before they are at deaths door; stories in which we all get to turn round and climb out of the pit before we reach the snake infested bottom, when the dark night involves cocoa and a good sleep before the dawn.

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

*The rising and setting of the moon also affect the darkness at any given time of the night, but for the sake of simplicity and the length of the sentence I thought it best to leave that out of the main text. If the moon set in the early hours and the sky clouded over for a bit then cleared as the sun rose then that night could be said to have been darkest before the dawn but I think “always” is probably pushing it.

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