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A Rose By Any Other Name…


In a global culture it is obvious that the name of a thing has little bearing on the nature of the thing itself: whether you call it un gant, ein handschuh or a glove it will keep your digital extremities exactly the same amount of warm. Naturally mythology and folklore, regardless of linguistic origin, are bulging with yarns which stand or fall on specific nomenclature. 

Starting at the beginning, creation myths are almost exclusively about the naming of things, sometimes to the extent that speaking names is the method by which the progenitor deity summons the elements of the universe in to being. Even in those myths where all the living things are hand made out of mud or clay, the divine sculptor doesn’t release their inventions into the wild without giving them a handy descriptive label. The implication in these naming stories is that the god given moniker describes and contains the underlying primal nature, the essential essence of the being or thing it is attached to. 

The god themself however, produces their magnum opus under a pseudonym. Often they have several. The Norse crafter of the universe, Odin, uses a series of aliases, often taunting a rival with a selection of them (the full list runs over a couple of pages of A4). Behind these sobriquets their true name remains hidden. This is because the very power to generate beings and shape reality resides in the creators own name, it is a potent cypher, a resonant sound, a word of power! Numerous creators have names so powerful they should not be spoken. In a story about the Egyptian originator god who we know as Ra, Isis tricks him in to giving her his secret name and so gains power over him. 

This theme of secret or true names holding power over their owners carries on into folklore. Fairies, witches and all sorts of supernatural beings, if asked will give names that are meaningless such as “No one”, or just a description and where they come from, as in “The Witch of Wookey” or the even vaguer “Hag Of The Woods”. 

Then of course there is the secret name story, you know, that secret name story, the one with the deal. It comes in different varieties of course, depending on where you are in the world. In Norway a troll offers to build a church in return for the priests eyes and heart, In Scotland a widow gets her sick pig cured by a fairy in return for her baby, in England an imp spins five skeins of wool each day in return for the queen herself. In each case, and indeed many others, the foolish deal maker can get out of paying the extraordinary price they have agreed to if they can guess the name of their supernatural helper, not that tricky a task if they were called John or Jane but who is going to guess “Rumplestiltskin” if they have never been told a story about him? 

Although the set up and the price may differ the end of the story is always the same: someone visits the debtor and relates a peculiar thing they saw or overheard whilst out for a walk. In every case it is, of course, the troll / imp / fairy in question and in every case they were singing a song which included their name. The visitor remembers the song exactly, and thus the hapless protagonist is armed with the one bit of information that can save them from the results of their own foolishness: their oppressor’s true name. 

It’s an odd story in many ways, often devoid of any morally good character, but it clearly shows the power and value of a name. 

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Sisters


“I know we are not supermodels but ‘Ugly’ is just unkind.” Sister 1 says.
They have asked that their names be withheld, “For the moment we’d really like to distance ourselves from the whole thing,” says Sister 2 “but we think it would be good to put our side of the story out there, you know, get it off our chests.”

I was originally sceptical when they contacted me for an interview but it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. So here I am in a quiet coffee house sharing a plate of biscuits with two ladies who are indeed not unattractive in the least and exhibit none of the signs of haughtiness or pride that are traditionally attributed to them. S1 let’s out a musical laugh while S2 rolls her eyes theatrically skywards, “Step sisters? No, She just turned up on our doorstep one day!” They both give a ‘What can you do?’ shrug and S1 continues the tale: “She was wearing the most impractical and expensive ‘peasant’ outfit you have ever seen, but back when he was alive our father had done some trade with her father so we sort of knew who she was. Mum said she could stay as long as she did her share of the cooking and cleaning.” They exchange a glance and S2 stifles a giggle. “You’ve never seen anyone so completely useless in a kitchen!” 
“Being a princess, she’d never touched a pan or lit a fire in her life!”
“We tried to show her what to do but practical tasks were not really her thing-”
“-or listening!”
“To be fair she did give it a go to start with, but puffing and blowing in the grate before you have cleared it of ash is always going to end in disaster!”
“She managed to cover herself in soot from head to foot..” 
“… and most of the house!”
“And that’s when she started calling herself Cinderella.”
So it was her joke to start with?
“Oh yes, we all had a good laugh while we were cleaning up the first time.”
The sisters exchange another look, serious for a moment but soon excitedly interrupting each other again.
“As time went on though, she didn’t get any better. We kept on stepping in to show her how something was done and finding she’d wondered off and was singing in the garden-”
“-while we did all the work! So we tried going out and leaving her to it but we really underestimated how far she would go to get someone else to do it for her.”
“She dropped a bag of millet one day and instead of sweeping it up she just opened the windows and let the birds in!”
“It took 2 hours to get the last of the birds out and a week to stop the house smelling of pigeon poop. We were still plucking feathers out of the curtains a month later.”
“We came back one day to find a sheep in the parlour with a broom tied to it’s tail while she was prancing around the pantry with one of dad’s old coats ‘tra-la-la-ing’-”
“-and there were actual squirrels swimming in the sink!”


It’s all quite shocking. I enquire about vegetable transportation to 3 royal dances.
“One ball. We managed to arrange an extra invite for her but she said she was going to stay and clear up the mess she had made that day-” S1 starts. S2 breaks in
“- then she rocked up ‘fashionably late’, making quite the entrance.”
“Pumpkin” says S1, “was the name of the taxi firm. She hired a mini cab for the night, loaded two spare outfits and ran off to change at any point that she lost the Prince’s attention.”
“Pretending she didn’t know us all evening by the way.”
“At the end of the night she made a big show of having to run out before midnight-”
“-the Prince looked a bit puzzled and tried to start a conversation with a table decoration-”
“-so she scrawled our address on the bottom of her shoe, ran back in-”
“-and threw it at him!”
The last line said together, then heads back and laughing. S1 shakes her head 
“They were so mashed”.


So the bit about trying on the slipper is all nonsense then?
“Ha ha! You’d think! But no: the next day there’s the Prince outside calling out that ‘Whosever shall this slipper fit’ etc. and we all have to go through this ridiculous palaver of trying on her 4 inch stiletto.”
“Which might have made some sense if she was a size 11 but she’s a 7-”
“-and so are we. Even mum!”
“Even Mrs. Blewfery from next door!”
Did you say ‘It fits! Marry me!’? They find the suggestion hysterical.
“Good grief no! The Prince is a total fantasist. Him and Cindy are perfectly suited.”

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The Elder Mother


Sitting down to write this months Folk Tales Corner I found myself searching for a subject, then I remembered that I had rather been handed a baton by Country File (not the BBC programme but the short seasonal wildlife column in the local magazine where Folk Tales Corner starts it’s life) with the reference to The Elder Mother in a piece about fire wood. I think they had in mind that I would trot out the story, make a comment on it, job done! As usual it turns out to be much more complicated than that. 

Western society is built fairly strongly on a medieval foundation and tends to see things in a very binary way. There is yes and no, good and bad, my way or the highway. Folklore, especially that which has been around for some time, often steps in to greyer areas, and there is little more ambiguous than the lore surrounding the Elder: She is a witch tree but her twigs will protect you from fairies; if you burn her wood it will bring death to your house but the medicines made from her can bring you back from the brink of death; an elder tree in the garden will keep you safe but having them all round the house will finish you off, though you should never cut one down or it will result in misery, misfortune and shrub related retribution.

The medicinal properties are in fact real. The list of medical preparations that can be made from her bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, pith and roots would easily fill several pages on their own and include diuretics, astringents, febrifuges, purgatives, expectorants, laxatives, pain relievers and sleep inducers. Most of the lore surrounding the Elder is probably a result, one way or another, of it being a veritable hedgerow chemical factory. The leaves for instance could be used to keep rats, mice and flies away as they do not like the smell. This is clearly where it got its status as a protector against fairies, the side benefits of being free from actual small pests getting attributed to being free from diminutive mythological beings. 

With an entire shop full of medicines being available from one tree, the Elder would have been a regular stop for any herbalists or healers. Few trees are as blatant with their fertility as the Elder. Her white blossom and red berries obscuring her green leaves in turn. It is easy to see how such a bountiful bush would be protected by warnings of the danger and loss that would follow any careless damage: sooner or later you would suffer for your sloppiness when the remedy for your malady was no longer available. The Elder Mother then, was a giver of great gifts who should be respected and, like any mother, could bring comfort or comeuppance. 

As the medieval Church defamed all knowledge that was not under it’s direct control traditional medicine became decried as witchcraft, and the Elder went from generous goddess to woodland witch, field pharmacy to tree of terror. It was an easy fit because the Elder Mother, like many pagan goddesses, already had a dark side. It is true that elder wood does not burn well, it spits, smokes and gives little flame, then smoulders in the grate. In doing so it releases many of the toxins from which it’s medicines are made. As the fire loses it’s heat it is more likely that the noxious gasses from the fuel will creep in to the room instead of exiting through the chimney, subjecting the occupants to a strong soporific which would prevent them from awakening while they breath in a cocktail of deadly vapours. If you bring death to the giver of life then you can expect to reap her revenge!

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Man’s Beast Friend


While the deeper meanings of a story remain constant the details and mechanics are often effected quite strongly by the medium. This is never more obvious than the change wrought on werewolves by the cinema. Almost everything we think we know about werewolves: their connection to the lunar cycle; their immunity to all but silver bullets; their un-controllable blood lust; the weird feud thing with vampires; that a bite will will make you one too… were all popularised by movies and are all wrong.

In pre-Victorian folklore the moon doesn’t play a part in werewolf stories at all, they have no crossover with vampires whatsoever and getting bitten by a werewolf may be painful, or even fatal, but it is not transformative. Werewolves die as easily as any other mammal and only a few of them are hell bent on destruction. In the old folktales it seems that being a werewolf is a purely physical condition. The person of evil intent will become an evil wolf whilst the good and civilised person will remain equally domesticated whilst in their furry skin.

Those who are wicked and have the ability to become a wolf are frequently repeatedly violent, not always when changed either. The renowned folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould, wrote a book called The Book of Were-Wolves” which is actually primarily about serial killers. He appears to be making the case that the werewolf trope arises out of the monsterfication of the multiple murderer. In folktales and history bad werewolves get killed of course, usually with a fairly standard sharp implement such as a spear or a knife, or dancing at the end of a rope if the law has caught up with them.

One of the things about the good werewolf is that they don’t have a big problem with being a bit doggy; running off in to the woods is just a thing they have to do now and then. There are even stories in which the ability to transform is given as a gift or reward. Any problems that they have stem from other people’s reactions. It is often getting past society’s unwarranted negativity that creates the conflict in the story. In one French tale (France has quite a high density of the afflicted), a dissolute Abbott called Gilbert falls form his horse in the forest whilst drunk, cutting himself in the process. The smell of blood attracts some wild panthers who are about to make a meal of him when he is rescued by a werewolf. The werewolf follows Gilbert back to the abbey, despite Gilbert’s repeated and ever increasing attempts to shoo it away, and later turns out to be his Bishop who lectures Gilbert on the Christian values of judging people by their actions rather than their appearance.

Unlike many other beast genres in folktale, the climax of the tale rarely involves the werewolf becoming permanently human, the condition is not one that gets cured. The more gentle and well behaved werewolf can mostly avoid the terrible terminations of their murderous cousins but is still generally the same amount of canine at the end of the story as the beginning. The wedding that is the resolution in so many fairytales is totally absent as well, the werewolf’s marital status being neither here nor there unless it is their spouses attitude to their lupine nature that causes their problems. What the good werewolf can generally look forward to as their “happily ever after” is acceptance of who they are, however big their eyes, ears and teeth are.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Waking The Dead


I am wrenched from an uneasy sleep by the sound of screaming. A piercing metallic shriek indicating a train is trying to drag its inflexible wheels around an over-optimistically tight curve. It is 7.26 and the heat is already rising in the city below, invading my cheap hotel room on the eleventh floor. The window opens but not enough to make the air move, only let in the inexorable heat. While walking the streets the night before in search of food, dripping sweat in the endless swelter, I was aware of the difference of this place to other cities, even other ports I am more familiar with. I lived in Southampton for a while which seems barely aware it is a port at all. Here, all roads lead to the docks as if there is no other place you might want to go. I’ve spent time in Cardiff, a different country but mostly the same language. Here, every group of people passing by speaks another tongue I do not recognise.

In the mall, filled with chain stores and franchises that are recognisable across half the globe I heard some men greet each other in German. I smiled as I was suddenly reminded of Hamburg where I played many gigs and once recorded an album. The squealing trains also remind me of Germany, but this time of the Old East where the screech of trams often echoed through the cobbled streets regardless of the hour. The clear blue sky, merciless sun and long, hot evenings are more in keeping with southern Italy though. This is not weather for a ginger from Devon. I’m a long way from home and I feel it.

As the grinding wheels and the railway tracks sing their tortured song once more I pull back the single sheet under which I had attempted to slumber, cross to the window and push it shut. I stop and look out on this unfamiliar city that will be my home for the next four days and much of the next two months. Assorted clock and church towers rise up out of the purposeful victorian-colonial brick architecture, amongst assured modern skyscrapers fashioned from white curves and blue tinted glass. As they take turns to chime the half hour my eye is caught by movement. On the water, about a mile away, the Isle of Wight ferry is chugging off towards Ryde.

Yes, I’m in Portsmouth. I’m now officially “Consultant Storyteller to the National Museum of the Royal Navy”, employed to research and create a suite of stories for HMS Warrior, do some performances then train the staff in the telling of them.

 

HMS Warrior was “the first Ironclad”. In 1861, with her metal hull, a steam powered propellor and fearsome complement of massive cannons, she was the most powerful, cutting edge, modern, heavily armoured vessel on the sea. This is serious history! My job this week is to read everything written about the Warrior and read everything ever written by anyone who served on or was involved in building her, and read everything written about anyone who ever served on or was involved in building her… In four days.


The sun beats down on this strange city. Soon I must make my way through the parched grass of Victoria Park and follow the roads to the only place they go, down to the dockyards where the long dead crew of a once great vessel are waiting for me to find them and bring them back to life. I momentarily see my reflection in the hotel window. I’m smiling: It’s time to go to work.

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The Karmic Paws of the Furry Fraudster


Fox stories are quite different from the majority of folk tales I have researched before. The focus is on the interaction between the fox and the world of wild animals. This is a world populated by blunt, clicéd characters in animal guise. It mirrors the hierarchical society of humans with despotic lion kings and greedy, wolfish lords. A surprisingly small number of fox related yarns involve chickens or other domesticated animals and, apart from our agricultural activities, very little separates humanity from the animal kingdom, not even language, with bears, snakes, wolves, crows and foxes all perfectly capable of making themselves understood through speech just as if all mammals and birds shared a common mode of communication.

The famed low cunning of old Tod is matched by an equal level of openness and naivety. Whilst tales of trickery seem to gravitate to the little red dog like sleaze to conservative MPs they are almost as often the trickee as they the tricker: As one fox is making off with a rooster he has captured the farmer calls for the return of his bird. The cockerel says “You should tell him I’m not his any more I’m yours!”, Fox takes the advice, opens his mouth to taunt the farmer whereupon the plucky fowl flies to safety. In “The Kings Son Goes Bearhunting” a fox helps out a farmer who has accidentally promised his horse to a bear. After fooling the bear out of both the horse and his life Fox goes with the farmer to collect his agreed reward of 3 chickens. The farmer makes the fox wait while he brings out the chickens in a bag, “If I open the bag they will fly away, you’ll have to climb in and get them” he says. Fox climbs in to what is in fact an empty bag and the farmer beats him against a rock!

For all their cons and swindles the foxes of folklore are almost permanently hungry, each successful hustle being followed by a loss to another furry grifter or a straight up bully. Undeterred they move on to the next mark. As with other tricksters such as the middle east’s Muller Nasrudin, Africas Anansis the spider god and the Native American’s Coyote, Fox’s powers are as often used to help a fellow being as to steal from them. The trickster’s interest appears to be as much in the application of intelligence, in the process of problem solving by deception, as in the product of the ploy. These other tricksters are also as likely to be the target of chicanery as the perpetrator and as such are collectively known as the The Divine Fool, a worldwide mythological archetype who acts as a mirror through which humanity can examine our relationship to curiosity and cleverness, kindness and cruelty, selfishness and stupidity.

None of the worldwide foolish scam artists can be described as exactly principled in their character, even the fox tales that make it into Aesop, with his classic wrap up of “…and the moral of that story is…” come out more as pragmatic advice for career politicians than ethical guidance for the young. Why then do we tell these peans to the unscrupulous? Why perpetuate these apparent encouragements to artifice? As ever context is everything. In the bushmen societies of Africa, one of the last remnants of the gathering and hunting lifestyle humanity evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, the societal norms lean much more towards sharing and supporting than ours do. In these societies the trickster’s self centred antics are tantamount to horror stories. They are a warning that if you behave like that to those around you then they will behave like that to you. Fox’s perpetual state of hunger is not just a storyteller’s device to provide incentive for the set up, but the inevitable consequence of acting in the interests of the individual over those of the tribe. Simultaneously, those who are duped are being punished for not sharing, with the trickster acting as karmic retribution.

There is no doubt: the Fox is much more than just fluffy thief.

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To Catch a Fox by the Tale


Usually I know before I head out in the Autumn what the theme for the spring tour will be but, after several years of touring two shows a year, I found myself a little short of inspiration for the early 2018 run.
“I have no idea!” I had to confess to those who asked what was coming up.
“You could do thieves / fools / kings / rabbits / constellations etc.” they proposed with that particular glee that we all experience in those moments when we can see an opportunity to get something we want whilst believing that we are being helpful.

The range of suggestions was very broad, almost everyone had a unique concept. Only one theme came up more than once, but that one theme was mentioned many times.
Well, “Give the people what they want” is not an entertainment industry adage for nothing, so I’m hunting down tales of foxes. Yes, by popular request, Reynard and his cousins will be the subject of my spring tour: Foxed.

The autumn tour is always easier to settle on because it links into the Halloween season. I’m not sure what the prompt was but I found myself thinking that werewolves could probably stand a more thorough examination than I have previously given them and, although I have told a couple of canine hybrid tales before, it was a few years ago and they are good enough to be given a brush off and a second outing this October.

What’s curious is that it was only after I had made these two decisions that I realised the subjects chosen both refer to creatures of the same genus, and even curiouser, it was only after that I discovered 2018 is the Chinese year of the dog. Spooky huh?

I say ‘same genus’ but there really is a gulf between them. Werewolf stories are all about the curse of changing in to a terrifying beast and the werewolf is always a human who, for one reason or another, becomes a wolf. Fox stories are all about cunning and tricks, not always played by the fox but sometimes played on them. Even when we come to the Kitsune of Japan, who are shapeshifters, werefoxes, they are still very different. The Werefox is always a fox who can use their magical powers to become human.

Usually I have a couple of stories lined up that were the reason I chose a particular theme, I know the core of the show before I start the research. During the reading and searching my preconceptions often change significantly and I frequently end up not using the stories that started me off down that particular path in the first place. Nevertheless they give me the sense of a good foundation which is easy to build on. With Foxed I have had to start from sniff*, and am now wandering the fields and forests of folklore following every glimpse of orangey fur from Aesop to Yollen (couldn’t find a collector who starts with a Z). I can’t say it’s cruelty free as some of the animals come out quite badly from the tricks that get played on them, but if I have to take up fox hunting I’m much happier doing it riding a sofa with a pile of books than I would be on a horse. When I’ve caught a few I’ll pick the best ones and tell you all about them.

The Travelling Talesman will be performing “Foxed” at the following venues:
http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk/giglist.shtml

* Which is four steps earlier than starting from scratch. The full sequence is: Sniff, listen, look, lick (the air) and only then do you risk scratch.

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