Tag Archives: stories

The Spectre That Says “No!”


I don’t know what it’s like for other storytellers but I find stories develop a character of their own and are very much like people. Some are steady and dependable, stories that will always look after you, a safe place to go when everything is a bit fraught.

Others are consistently surprising, like the friend who invites you to see a movie with them, meets you at the bus stop, leads you through some back streets saying it’s a short cut and the next thing you know you’re in a converted sock factory watching a semi burlesque steampunk revue with a 7% Belgian beer in your hand and the only nod to cinema is some grainy black and white 8mm film projected behind the hurdy-gurdy orchestra. It’s great fun, but you really need to be sure you are well rested and in good condition before you dial their number and ask them what they are up to on Tuesday.

The ‘big story’ from the Foxed tour is one of the latter sort, a long and rambling adventure with plenty of opportunity to go off course. It’s my own fault. I’d found three versions of the story, all quite different but with enough commonality to be obviously variants of the same essential tale. I couldn’t make up my mind which one to do… so I decided to make a new version with the best bits from all three in! This gave the performance regular chances to slip from one version to another by accident and once you’ve left the path and headed off in to the woods it is very easy for a character in the story to haul you off somewhere else as well. The Golden Damsel, who is dragged in to the quest about two thirds of the way through, very much as an eventual trophy wife for the simpleton protagonist, turned out to have some strong opinions on the way princesses are treated in folk tales and instead of being silently carted off by the hero who wakes her with a kiss, decided she was going to have her own adventure and pretty much took over. Not to be outdone the Seven Big Women of Denmark gave themselves a radical makeover about half way through the tour and have been getting bolshier ever since. I think I can safely say that no two performances have been the same. Purists would be very upset.

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For all it’s freewheeling anarchy and modern updating, a good story will carry it’s deeper layers, it’s accrued psychological elements, with it. In a repeating motif the simpleton protagonist has to get past a series of numerically significant guards; a score, then a dozen, a half dozen and three. These guards are all asleep but have their eyes open staring at him. He has to ignore their glares and walk past them. It is simultaneously comic, chilling and puzzling. What are these silent, staring sentinels for? What do they mean?

When the Idiot Hero is trying to steal the Golden Damsel he not only has to pass the 20, 12, 6, and 3 sets of unsettling guards but he is finally faced with a Spectre that says “No! No! No!” He walks through it for it is only made of smoke. With this moment of tension and dissipation an interpretation of the sleeping guards offers itself: Could it be that the guards stand for a disapproving society, glaring at the simpleton as he transgresses the acceptable boundaries? A barrier to the faint hearted, but no real threat to those who are firm of purpose? Certainly, the deeply ineffectual spectre would indicate something along those lines.

I wonder if the story has done it’s work, burrowed in to people’s minds and given them the courage to walk past the staring eyes of the guards and have their own adventures, going off to find converted sock factories for themselves, dressing up for fun and learning the hurdy-gurdy, regardless of what other people think? I do hope so.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Who becomes a ghost? Nobody!


You can’t beat a ghost, literally. You can try, but since a ghost is an NCB (Non Corporeal Being), it has no physical body and does not respond to being whacked with weapons. Now if people come back from the dead in their own body, that is a different matter. It is also a different thing, not a ghost but a… any guesses? No? You know me too well!

If you have come back from your grave it may well be that you were buried alive. With the dubious medical practices of the past, live burial was not entirely uncommon. To offer a last chance to those who were not only at Death’s door but had been neatly nailed in a box and delivered to his lobby, it was standard practice to place a string in the deceased’s hand and attach the end to a bell on a stand above the grave. In this manner, if you did come round in a wooden overcoat under several feet of earth, it was possible to be “saved by the bell” and become a “dead ringer”. It also made you a “revenant”. A revenant is someone who has “come back”, from the French “revenir”: “to come back”, and was particularly used for those who had come back from the dead. A significant feature of a revenant is that they have come back to life; they are alive, unlike vampires.

Far from being handsome or sparkly, the original folkloric vampire of eastern Europe was a fat, fetid, dead person with matted hair and dark or purple skin, wearing a shroud, that rose from the graveyard to feed on the living. These it seems, were largely the result of hysterical fear of the dead combined with confusion over the stages of decomposition. Someone would have a bad dream or a fevered vision and the most recently deceased person would get the blame. On being exhumed to see if they were leaving their grave in the night, their body would be found plumper than when they died, possibly gurgling, and with fresh blood dripping from their mouth. Clear signs that they were wandering about and drinking blood! That these symptoms are pretty much what one would expect as bacteria fill the dead body with gasses and this forces “purge fluids” from any openings, wasn’t well known to your rural communities at the time. The classic methods of dispatching these foul creatures, A stake in the chest or decapitation, are both good ways to deflate a gaseous, bloated corpse.

In 1819 a bloke called John Polidori wrote his book “The Vampyre”, a while later Bram Stoker nicked his ideas and wrote a slightly more famous book. Thus the newly pale, cultured, attractive and un-dead vampires put on evening wear and took over stately homes, conveniently leaving an empty space in our graveyards, and our fears of walking corpses, for the zombies to move in. Zombies (you knew they’d turn up eventually) entered our language, and our imagination, from Africa and the Caribbean in the 19th century. These post life perambulators are corpses re-animated by witchcraft, a meat puppet, and as such are still technically dead. A zombie is in some ways the exact opposite of a ghost, in that it is a body with no spirit.

Revenants are rarely heard of these days, Vampires are getting ever more glamorous and even the zombie-come-latelies are not the shambling foot draggers they used to be. Ghosts, however, remain ghosts. Unchanged by the years, the disembodied spirits of the dead still float around the sites of their demise, moaning and groaning, or unwittingly repeating some long-finished task, unable or unwilling to pass over to the other side. In these uncertain times it’s nice to know there is someone you can rely on, even if there is actually no body there.

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Take Care Out There


Transformation is often used as a punishment. The White Cat, in the French folktale of the same name, is originally a princess who has been given to the fairies by her mother as payment for some enchanted fruit (well that’s the currency you buy your enchanted fruit with isn’t it?). Everything ticks along nicely until the princess tries to escape whereupon the fairies turn her in to a white cat, making all her subjects feline too. Her restoration depends on a prince falling in love with her for her personality, which she keeps along with her ability to speak. Naturally, even though she now lives in a secluded palace hidden in a dense forest, the youngest of three king’s sons turns up on a quest. The White Cat has also been given some magic abilities and is able to help the prince out by providing the small dog he has been sent to get. It’s not enough of course and he is soon back for some cloth so fine it can pass through the eye of a needle. The third time he turns up she helps him out by once more becoming her beautiful human self so they can get married. Not much of a punishment really.

Prince Dung Beetle does less well. We meet him in his insect form when a poor girl who is running to the doctors to get medicine for her ailing mother slips and nearly crushes him. Since she sprains her ankle avoiding this rather sudden end to the story he helps her out saying “climb on my back” (notice he retains his speech as well) then flying her to the doctors and back home with the necessary medicaments. The mother is instantly cured and suggests the girl should feed her “little horse” but he is nowhere to be seen. Moments later the restored prince turns up and explains that he had been turned in to a dung beetle to do penance for being cruel to helpless creatures in his youth and had spent many years suffering, only to be freed if someone was kind to him. Since the girl had affected his cure he naturally offered to marry her and make her family wealthy as well. So that turned out all right too.

They don’t all end happily ever after. When an old woman in rags came in to the bakery asking for just a little bit of bread the bakers daughter at first refused to give her any. After some additional pleading from the beggar woman the baker said “Tear off a bit of dough and make her a roll.” The daughter tore off a tiny little piece and left it to prove with the rest. When she came back she found the dough had risen enough to be a whole loaf. She ignored the good fortune that luck had bestowed on the old lady and tore off an even smaller bit than before then put it back down for a second proving. Once more the tiny piece of dough gained the size of a full loaf so she tore off an even smaller bit and put it in to bake. Those of you who know your folk tales will not be surprised to hear that when they took the bread out of the oven there was no small roll but only full sized loaves. Still the baker’s daughter tore off a chunk from the end of one and handed it to the old woman saying “I don’t know what’s going on here but that’s all you are getting”. The old woman began to change, growing taller and more beautiful, and revealed herself to be a fairy. “You had many chances to be kind with no loss to yourself” she said, “but you chose to be mean. Now I curse you to live in darkness and feast on vermin!” and with that she waved her wand. The baker’s daughter began to shrink, feathers sprouted from her skin, her eyes grew wide and a mournful hooting escaped the beak that grew where her lips had been. She spread her new wings and flew away to the woods. There she lives still, only coming out at night to hunt for rats and mice. So always be kind, even to the lowliest creature they may be a prince or a fairy, after all the owl was a baker’s daughter.

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Didn’t We Tell You That?


We all have little things that trigger our anger and frustration causing outbursts that leave the person who has unwittingly pushed our pedant button shocked and baffled. One of my current triggers is people saying “well that’s just a story” or similar. Everything is a story! Some stories are factual and others less so but if you are being told it by another person, either through speech or the written word, it is a story. Now some may contain facts and some may not. Even as late as the 14th century there was no difference in meaning between the words “story” and “history”, both come from the same French word meaning the relating of events from the past, yet we accept one as true and the other as dubious. The stories I deal in are, as I hope I have illustrated over the years, full of truths and histories are equally full of distortions and sometimes even outright lies.

For some time I have used the death of Robin Hood as my example of a forgotten truth buried in a story and considered an exaggeration. The story goes that on his death bed Robin Hood shot an arrow saying “bury me where this arrow falls”. The distance between Kirklees Priory, where the outlaw spent his final hours, and the site known as Robin Hood’s Grave has for many years been considered too far for even an Olympic archer to shoot and the whole episode written off as “just a story”. However, the excavation of the Mary Rose brought to light long bows with a draw weight well in excess of current sporting maximums. It was soon agreed that a professional archer of the middle ages who had been shooting since their youth, armed with a bow of such power would have been able to make the shot. Story 1 – Common sense 0.

Recently I have found a new tale to tell of forgotten truth hidden in a story. In the middle of Australia there is a valley that has palm trees growing in it. Now, palm trees’ seeds are quite large and only travel any distance from the parent tree if they fall in to water. So palm trees in nature are either found next to each other or next to water. The valley in Australia is neither. The nearest palm trees are two thousand miles away and the sea is slightly further. Since their presence was a bit of a conundrum a scientist looked in to it. After getting a genetic profile of the valley’s palms he checked it against other Australian palms until he found their nearest relatives and with some archaeology and other clever work he was able to put together the story of the palm trees that shouldn’t be there: The seeds were carried from the north coast of Australia, 2,000 miles away, by people and planted in the valley 30,000 years ago. It was a quite a big thing and a bit of fuss was made in the Australian media. When the Aboriginal Australians heard about this they were rather surprised that such a fuss was being made. They said “Didn’t we tell you that story? I’m sure we must have done. The one about the gods who carried the seeds to the middle of the country and planted the palms in the valley? We must have told you… We’ve been telling that story for 30,000 years!”

That’s Robin Hood out of a job then. I now have a scientifically proven fact preserved in a folk tale for 30,000 years, which makes me wonder what else might turn out to be true and how long it may have been hiding. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether turning the seed carriers in to gods is an acceptable exaggeration over 30,000 years or whether the scientist needs to adjust his version in light of the new evidence… unless you think it’s “just a story”.

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

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Thinking Big


Well, it’s that time again, when we take stock of the year that has passed and prepare for the year ahead. My annual autumn tour of dark and scary stories has come to it’s end (thank you to all who came along). Both the “Dark Arts” tour and my spring outing “Away With The Fairies” were longer tours than in previous years and the number of people packing the venues has increased, even to the point of people sitting on the floor because there were no chairs left. On the down side I lost one of my favourite summer gigs as the National Trust at Corfe had to tighten their belt and reduce their budget for performers, hopefully I’ll be able to return to it’s picturesque ruins next year.

The thing I have been working on this year and intend to bring to fruition in 2015 is getting a full year ahead of myself. This is so I can match the lead in times for Arts Centres to broaden my scope socially and geographically. The effect at the moment is of course that I am doing twice as much work for little perceptible result. I feel very much like Alice when the Red Queen makes her run very fast but they don’t move at all and the Queen says “You have to run much faster than this if you actually want to get somewhere!”

So I am now doing research for both the spring tour and the next autumn tour which will be “Giants” and “Revenge!” respectively. I started off with a trawl through the many small pamphlets and booklets I have of folklore by county. Cornwall and Yorkshire both seem to have been thoroughly overrun by giants. Over the border in Somerset there have been a few, Shropshire had it’s share, Hampshire – a couple, even Norfolk boasts the tale of the outsize Thomas Hickathrift. Wiltshire, though short on stories, is dotted with the graves of the excessively large (mostly on the tops of hills and bearing a strong similarity to Neolithic chambered tombs or long barrows).

Our own county of Devon should, one might think, provide an ideal landscape for people of vast stature to stomp about. I can imagine the piled granite of the tors giving rise to any number of yarns about monsters of stone. Nevertheless, after a first look we appear to be rather short of titans in the Devonshire folklore. I suppose I could have a go at Geoffrey Of Monmouth’s tale of Brutus, the hero after whom Britain is allegedly named, landing at Totnes. Here Brutus and his companions, who have sailed from Italy via assorted points in the Mediterranean, Spain and France, first encounter the native occupants of the Isle. These are giants. Despite the obvious superiority of the indigenous population Brutus and pals are victorious slaying all the giants save for one named Gogmagog, who is saved for a show fight with Brutus’ friend and second in command, Corineus. After receiving a couple of cracked ribs Corineus loses his temper, picks up Gogmagog, runs to the sea and throws him over the cliff to meet a messy doom on the jagged rocks beneath.

I have never felt any great affinity for this episode of Geoffrey’s fantastical history though, and I’m not sure it can be considered local folklore. It does however contribute to a theory I have about the origin of some giant stories… but if you want to know what that is you’ll have to come to the show! Right, better go and find some more giants; if Jack can do it so can I!

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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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…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

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