Tag Archives: folktale

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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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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Pony Tales


Usually when I write on a certain folktale theme it is the theme of an upcoming show. Over the past years that has meant a touring show that might get twenty performances after a five month build up. I would already have an idea of around half the stories in the set in month one. During the ongoing research, filtering and learning stage I had time to notice underlying similarities, sub themes and concepts within the assorted yarns I was considering, cogitate on their meaning or relevance and pour my musings on to the page for Folk Tales Corner, often solidifying and condensing what had been quite loose, unfocused ponderings in the process. The well ordered and logical progression of thoughts which reveals itself in this fashion often then becomes the basis for an introduction to a story or the links in a sequence of shorter tales.

Now I am knocking new shows together in a couple of weeks, each one getting a single performance in front of a webcam and a screen full of small heads bobbing unnervingly about at the bottom of their oblong boxes. By the time I notice something I want to talk about it’s the night before the gig. By the time I have sat down to write about a thing I noticed the show has gone, along with some very short and random introductions.

Hence this months FTC is about horses, the show I did last Saturday. It’s not going to be as useful to me or you as it might have been… but there was something I spotted during the all too brief research that I really want to chew over. I’ve mentioned “the story” before, the one in a theme that you keep coming across? With horses it is this one: Three poor brothers are set to catch who ever has been stealing hay from the meadow, the eldest two fall asleep, the foolish youngest finds that it is a beautiful white mare, jumps on her back and is treated to the ride of their life but by hanging on they eventually cause the magnificent beast to accept them. Sometimes the horse then becomes their companion but more often she gifts the lad two amazingly valuable colts and one small and odd pony. Selling the prize colts to the king gets the young lad a job as the horses only behave for him. Jealous courtiers try to get rid of the kings new favourite by claiming he is a boaster and get the king to set him a series of impossible tasks under restrictive time constraints and threat of death. With the aid of the small odd horse who is naturally magic, can talk and sometimes fly, the young lad achieves the tasks. Often these involve the procurement of another famously amazing, but wild, mare and her herd, and nearly always end with the long distance abduction of a beautiful princess, who may or may not be the Moon or the Dawn. The denouement, in which the magic horse not only saves the lad from a hideous death, but contrives to make him even more handsome than he was while the old king commits accidental self-regicide in a cauldron of boiling milk, is a classic folk tale climax*, following which the Princess marries the lad and they take over the kingdom. Phew.

This tale and it’s variants can be found anywhere there are horses but the majority, and the more fully developed versions, cover a swathe that runs up the east of Europe from Turkey through Hungary and into Russia. This includes the ancient Greek myth of Pegasus, the famously winged horse captured by Belerephon, though without the poached monarch.

The thought that has been tickling me is: does this story, that comes to us from the edges of the horse lands, contain memories of the first horse taming? Did the very first fool to successfully break a horse become a celebrated hero but also a target for gossips and manipulators? Did they find that their new steed enabled them to capture or kill beasts too fearsome to overcome on foot, to do the previously impossible? Did it seem, even as it does to modern writers, that the horse at full speed barely touched the ground, clearing hedges and ditches like a bird, such that tales of flying horses are simply poetic exaggeration of previously unexperienced speed? Did their unique skill allow them to become a ruler? And, most importantly, does that mean we can date the genesis of this story to six and a half thousand years ago?

* If I haven’t persuaded you to read some folk tales over the last 11 years that sentence alone should do it.

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

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A Purrfect Tale


As with any animal in folklore a good number of folktale cats turn out to be enchanted royalty who, after assisting the protagonist with some impossible or at least improbable task, request that they be cut in half and promptly regain their human form. All very interesting to the folklorist, but in many ways interchangeable with any number of other animal helpers from frogs to foxes, so maybe not as quite as interesting to the purist cat lover.

Sitting on the line between transformed human and magical pet is one of the most famous feline tale types which I have in versions called variously The Master Cat, The Ashlad and the Cat, Cattenborg, Lord Peter, and… Puss In Boots to name just a few. It is found all across Europe from Norway to Italy. This story generally starts with the death of poor parents, leaving such meagre estate that the youngest child inherits only the family mog. The furry companion, who can talk of course, then sets about finding a potential monarchical mate for the hard up homo sapien by simply claiming they are of royal birth and stealing a magnificent castle off a troll to prove it. Some variants have the cat transform at the end but most leave puss, booted or otherwise, to a life of fluffy leisure after they have raised their primate from homeless penury to a regal state.

So we come to the true ailurophile’s* favourite tales: those that are about fabulous furry felines rather than about the humdrum hairless apes they associate with. Two things are expected from this type of yarn. First they should demonstrate a knowledge of our mousing mates that we recognise; some essential trait of character apparent in the moggies snoozing on our sofas, pawing at our pantries, and staring intently at our ceilings for no readily apparent reason. The second thing we want the narrative to do is pull back the curtain on the secret life we all suspect that cats live when no human eye is looking.

Scattered around the world, each of these tales brings the flavour of it’s home culture with it. From England comes a gem that I remember as one of a very few stories that I was told by my parents: The King Of The Cats. If you don’t know it, it features an old couple living near the village church. One day the fella comes home all of a bother “I’ve just seen the strangest thing” he tells his wife. “I was coming back through the church yard and there I saw a procession of cats with a little coffin on their shoulders”. At this point old tabby Tom who had been napping in the armchair by the fire woke up and looked intently at the old gaffer, who continued “They were all saying ‘Miauw’ at the same time”. Old Tom suddenly stood up and let out a loud “Miauw!”, “Yes, just like that” said the husband “And there was one black cat walking in front, and seeing me he stood up on his hind legs and walked towards me.” Tom stood up on his tabby hind legs and walked towards the man saying “Miauw” again. The Old lady nearly dropped the teapot. The old man’s eyes were as wide as saucers “Yes, just like that. And then it spoke”, “No it didn’t! Husband you’ve been drinking!” “Not a drop my dear. It spoke clear as you or I. Looked me right in the eye and said ‘Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead.’ I nearly feinted!“. There was a moment’s silence, but before the old dear could ask who Tom Tildrum might be or how her husband might be expected to pass the message he had been charged with on to him, Old Tabby Tom, still on his hind paws announced in perfect English “If Tim Toldrum’s dead then… I’m the King Of The Cats!” And with that he shot up the chimney and was gone, never to be seen again. A purrfect tale if ever I heard one.

* Ailurophile = Cat lover

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

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Look How Far We’ve Come


One of the side effects of researching old folk tales is one can’t help but develop an awareness of history. Whilst the history that is taught in education and sighed over in costume dramas is mostly from a fairly well to do perspective, folktales carry memories of the history experienced by the less fortunate. Stories like Hansel and Gretel remind us the nobility of the Middle Ages kept the agricultural peasantry on such barely subsistence wages, that a bad harvest or a passing pestilence could leave parents choosing which children to feed and which to abandon to their fate. Those without patronage, employment or pension were so hard pressed for food that, in difficult times, the madness of hunger actually did drive some to eat human flesh. Maybe alongside the famous Henry Tudor wife tally of “Divorced, Beheaded, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived!” We should learn the cost of medieval royalty’s lifestyle: “Starving, Abandoned, Died. Starving, Abandoned, Cannibalised.”

Uncomfortable as these reminders are, they are easy to pass by as the product of extremis, circumstances way beyond anything we are likely to encounter ourselves. However, now and then I come across a tale that can still shock me, it’s horrors not being so long ago or far away, and presented with such everyday banality that it sends shivers down my spine.

My next virtual online zoom performance is going to be about cats. A fairly safe topic one might have thought, relatively low in the jeopardy stakes with a minimal body count mostly tallied in rodents. I was not prepared for “The Lazy Cat”, a purportedly “humorous” tale from Hungary. It starts with the sentence “A lad married a rich and lazy maid and solemnly promised he would never beat her”. On the surface this may seem like a good thing but there are two warning signs in this one statement. Firstly, in folk tales of this type the opening sentence tends to be a pretty good guide to the main topic of the story: this is going to be a story about domestic violence. Secondly, the simple fact that his oath is worth mentioning means the cultural norm for the society was that husbands beat their wives. In case you are in any doubt about that, the story continues: the wife does no work around the house, spending her days in idle gossip “And still he kept his word and never raised his hand against her.” Yes, we are seriously being asked to give him points simply for not being a thug.

The husband solves the conundrum of how to discipline his unruly spouse without breaking his vow by turning to the cat. He orders the poor feline to do all the housework and have his meal ready for when he gets back under threat of a whipping. When he returns and puss has unsurprisingly failed to lift a paw he ties the cat to his wife’s back, whips the cat and the cat claws the wife. After a couple of days of this the wife starts to do the cat’s chores and all is well.

The shocking realisation that in an anecdote from not that long ago we are being invited to consider violence by proxy a clever work around; that the animal cruelty is almost casual; and the “joke” hinges on the foolish act of forsaking direct violence; shows that things have improved over the years. Our reaction to it gives us perspective. It’s a bit like reaching a hill top on a long walk. There is still a long way to go before we reach true equality between the sexes (women are still payed less than men for the same job despite legislation that says otherwise, just as one indisputable example), but just turn around, face back along the rocky path a moment and look how far we’ve come.

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

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A Bit Of Graft


With a new year starting, a vaccine on it’s way, and the economy in tatters I predict we are once more going to be hearing a lot about “hard work”. We are going to be exhorted to get down to it, get on with it and be dedicated about it. If we are poor we will be told that it’s because we aren’t doing enough of it. Those who are wealthy will claim that it’s because they did lots of it. Realising that “Hard work” is about to become a hot topic I naturally set about searching my data base for a folktale about hard work and the riches it bestows.

There wasn’t one. I checked with a fellow storyteller. They didn’t know of one either. Oh, There are plenty of tales warning of the destitution and destruction that can befall those who do not work at all (so I would avoid that). There are also many examples of stories in which doing some hard work is used as a signal of the protagonists virtue before they receive a gift of extraordinary munificence from a supernatural benefactor… But not one that we could think of in which the protagonist achieves opulence as a direct result of working hard and getting proportional recompense for said hard work.

Without doing an exhaustive statistical breakdown, I think I can pretty safely say that the most frequent folktale method of becoming rich is to marry nobility. Through most of history this option was only available to those of noble birth in the first place and most rags-to-riches tales are in reality riches-to-rags-and-back-again tales (Notably the fall from prosperity amongst nobility is always bad luck and never the result of not doing enough hard work). Although some domestic drudgery may be involved along the road back to affluence, this brings no reward of it’s own, in fact it usually comes with a side order of humiliation and degradation.

Celtic Myth goes further and spells it out for us when Cormac Mac Art goes to the land of Faery and is shown a vision in which a man constantly feeds a fire with whole trees, each of which is burned up by the time he returns with the next. This, Cormac is told, represents those who work for others as their work is never done and they do not get to warm themselves by the fire. Those who extol the benefits of you doing some hard work are frequently the people who will enjoy those benefits whilst doing very little that could be described as either hard or work themselves. If you are going to do some hard work you had better have a very clear idea of exactly what you are being given in return, because mostly it would appear to be more hard work. As ever, these tales hold up a mirror to reality. One need only to look at Nurses, who have worked even harder for the last year than they do normally and what reward have they received?

The thing is through the majority of civilisation, social mobility has been pretty much non existent. You were going to do what your parents did as there was no system for you to learn anything else. The peasantry should know their place, or at least accept it, since it wasn’t going to change unless the Lord (either local or heavenly) willed it, no matter how hard you work. Common sense agrees with this. It is clear that there is only ever a small percentage gain to be made by increasing the amount of effort put in by one person doing a one person job.

What then does folk tale offer us as an alternative to endless striving without reward? Often being clever and applying wisdom to your work is more important than how hard it is, whilst helping each other out and coming together to make hard work easy is highly recommended.

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The Old Grey Waffle Test


“But how do you remember it all?” It is the question I am asked most often about my craft. I have answered it in this column at least twice. With two different answers of course, both of which are true. Today as I sat down to write this months FTC for you I realised I am going to give you a third answer.

“What is it about Three?” Is one of the questions I am asked most often about my material: “Why does everything happen in threes”; “Why is three the magic number?”
The observant among you may well have put three and three together and realised the answers to these questions are linked.

The thing is, folk stories, stories that stay alive by being told, heard, remembered, and told again do have a survival mechanism that has evolved in them. It came to my attention last night when I was reading Jo a bedtime story. I had chosen the tale of the Goddess Inana and her descent in to the Underworld. This is one of the Sumerian stories that was found on 5,000 year old clay tablets from the dawn of writing. A deeply significant tale of power, sacrifice, loyalty and resurrection. Having performed it on tour nine years ago I am re-learning it for a zoom gig in September. It is around twenty minutes in total but I only have to learn about 7 minutes of it. Here’s the trick: every element is repeated at least three times, sometimes quite cleverly.

Before Inana descends in to the Underworld she gives her minster, Ninšubur, a set of very specific instructions concerning the ritual mourning she must perform, including some quite shocking procedures, and a richly metaphorical request for help she must make to Inana’s father and two grandfathers. The story follows Inana down while Ninšubur waits. After three days have passed and Inana has not returned, that specific sequence is reprised as Ninšubur puts on the dress of a servant, covers herself in ashes and performs the series of lacerations to her eyes, nose, ears (in public) and buttocks (in private) as directed previously. She then makes the requests to all three ancestors. Father Enki grants the wishes of Ninšubur and produces the necessary help so we don’t hear the request sequence again, but we don’t need to; we’ve heard it six times by now. We have only experienced the mourning ritual twice though. Don’t worry, it’s coming up again soon.

After Inana has been restored to life she comes back from the Underworld accompanied by the Anuna, who are described variously as the “Judges of the Underworld” and as “Demons”. They are not just up for a jolly in the land of light but have to maintain the cosmic balance by taking back someone to fill Inana’s place in the realm of the dead. The first person they encounter is of course Ninšubur, waiting patiently by the gate. The Anuna are about to take her below when Inana stops them: “This is my minister of fair words, She did not forget my instructions…” and continues to run through the litany of mourning that Ninšubur executed, lacerations both public and private, the visit to the houses of the three gods and concludes “She brought me back to life. How could I turn her over to you?”. So we hear the same words three times but in very different contexts, first as impending imperative, second as action and third as both praise and a defence before the Judges, each repetition carrying a different emotional charge.

Much as musicians listen out for departing audience whistling one of their melodies, storyteller’s know we have got something right when someone quotes an oft repeated line back at us. After I’ve told The Field of Genies I enjoy hearing “Who gave you permission to do that then?” echoing across festival fields; those who have heard The Padisha’s Daughter Who Married a Donkey Skull find themselves approaching taps with the words “What fountain is this?”; and any audience that has made me run around at the end of The Hedgehog And The Devil will get up to leave afterwards with the words “Off we go again then” on their lips.

And there you have it, at the risk of repeating myself, repetition within a story makes that story easier to remember and the stories that have triple repetition are more likely to be told because they are more easily remembered.


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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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It WasA Dark And Stormy Night


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Normal, Everyday Superheroes


One thing that you notice if you study stories – all stories, in books and films as well as folk tale and myth – is that the protagonists are very rarely just ordinary people. Oh, they may be an everyday person doing everyday things but in one way or another they will always be an outsider of some sort, something makes them different in their own way. The thing that interests me is that we all respond to this positively, we all identify with their difference, their sense of being outside the norm, we all say to ourselves “Yes! That’s like me. I’m different too.” We’re not wrong either. Extensive studies have found that there is no “normal”. Not one of us is actually like everyone else, no one is absolutely average in everything they think, feel, desire or do, and if there is a person who is utterly “normal” in every way that would make them extremely weird indeed!

 

Even the protagonists who are introduced as very normal, the ones who milk cows every day, cut hay each year, watch geese, sit and weave or run errands, turn out to be special in some way. It may be that they identify a transformed human because of their un-goose like behaviour; they are able to hide amongst the cows because the cows are at ease with them or they are able to run away because of the amazing turn of speed they have developed doing deliveries. One way or another the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

There are rules, of course, for those who strike out along the paths less travelled and uncover the true value of their previously mundane skillset. The first is probably the hardest and that is to accept the adventure when it presents itself. For a society made of unique individuals who are happy to cheer on every oddball, weirdo and drifter that Hollywood presents us with, we can be very, very resistant to non-conformity when actual outsiders turn up in the office or walking along ‘our’ street. The would-be heroic type must be open to the unusual; ready to respond when a talking bird or a wise old person crosses their path, and neither pretend it hasn’t happened nor strike out in fear.

Some of the other rules are simple and made much more obvious during the story: The one who achieves the quest is the one who shares their food with the old person at the crossroads or helps the various beleaguered animals they find on their way. They are often given advice that involves perseverance, an exhortation to “keep going no matter what happens”. Less obvious, but equally important is the fact that they must heed that advice or accept the help that is offered by the animals they have helped earlier. This again is something our society struggles with. For some reason we have been trained to believe we should do everything ourselves despite the fact that, just as we all have some skills others lack, we also all find ourselves utterly incapable at some things.

So, here are the folk tale rules for those who wish to discover their everyday superpowers:
1) Be open to the unusual, in people or events.
2) Be kind and share what you have.
3) Follow advice from those with experience.
4) Keep going when it’s difficult.
5) Ask for help if you need it and accept it when it comes.

It’s worth noting that these rules remain remarkably consistent across continents, cultures, religious precedence, and time. It’s almost as if acceptance, kindness and perseverance are the essential ingredients for, not just superheroes, since we all have superpowers even if we don’t know them yet, but for being human.

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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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