Tag Archives: Story

Cheers!


I’ve got a 40 pint bucket of a yeasty sugar mix bubbling gently in my office. If all goes well it will transform over the next month in to 40 pints of cheap but very drinkable beer. The best thing about it is that I can honestly say that it is part of my research for work. A new year brings a new tour, “The Nectar Of The Gods”, in which I shall be looking at the place taken in mythology by the fermentation of alcoholic beverages.

My old favourites the Norse Gods have a couple of adventures on the subject. In one, the truce between the Aesir, the gods of Asgard, and the Vanir, the ‘shining ones from beyond’ is sealed by all of these divine beings spitting in to a cauldron. Odin makes Kvasir, a man of great wisdom, from the resultant holy goo and sends him off in to the world to do good. Two dwarves kill him, mix honey with his blood and brew a sublime mead that can bestow a magical ability to speak with great skill and weave words together in rhythm and rhyme.
The giant Suttung steals the three cauldrons, putting them under guard of his daughter Gunlod in a cave deep under a mountain. Odin then embarks on a long and arduous journey to retrieve the Mead Of Poetry for the gods. In another Norse tale there is no ale for a feast and no cauldron big enough to brew it so Thor is despatched to the land of the giants to fetch an appropriate brewing vat.

The theme of not having the necessary equipment seems common in the North. The Finnish epic “The Kalevala” contains a section in which the wedding beer will not start its fermentation. It appears they know about barley, hops and water but not yeast. A magic virgin despatches a squirrel, a marten and a bee on quests to bring back pine cones, bear spittle, and honey respectively. Even when they finally get the bubbles to rise the beer itself refuses to have a beneficial effect unless someone sings about how marvellous it is.

In the cuniform tablets of the ancient Sumerians we find a hymn to the goddess of beer, Ninkasi, which also contains the full recipe and instructions. Similarly, in the epic of Gilgamesh, when the wild man Enkidu comes to Uruk it is not the eating of bread that civilises him but the drinking of beer. No story that I have come across recounts the amazing discovery of leavening bread with yeast. Despite all the associations we, as modern people, have with grain goddesses, there are relatively few deities of bread and apparently no existing recipes from the earliest writings. It is also an interesting point that the instigators of agriculture were not growing wheat but barley. It is not surprising then, that some archaeologists and historians are of the opinion that the driving force behind the spread of agriculture was not food supply but the discovery of the delights of beer! Certainly the mythological record accords far more importance to beer than bread.

The journey into the origins of the myths about beer has lead me to the possibility that the amber nectar may be behind the greatest shift in human society we have yet experienced: the move from nomadic hunting and gathering to a settled agrarian society with cities and all that they bring. With my foaming bucket of barley and hops I am following in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors (except for the pinecones and bear spit), and I look forward to a very civilised March before I head off on tour in April, May and June.

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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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Send In The Lifeboats


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There’s No Team In I


When I think about the stories I would like to tell and the messages I would like my audience to take away with them I often find myself wishing I could find more tales where a group or community get together to face a threat, solve a problem or, even better, create something wonderful. These tales are few and far between and most that I have come across have a coda in which everyone argues about who did the best or was the most vital contributor. The results of this argument range from general embarrassment, through the loss of all they have worked for, to absolute destruction of the entire community.

It’s fairly easy to see how the “Who’s most important” coda comes in to being as both a reflection of reality and a warning about the dangers of rampant ego. Nevertheless, there are an enormous number of stories of an individual heroic teenager going on an adventure and they almost invariably end with a young and inexperienced couple getting married. These very rarely have a coda in which one of them is slowly driven mad by the other’s inability to remember where they put their car keys or their failure to do the washing up. This may, of course, be because the protagonists either started off royal or acquired unimaginable wealth during their adventures and have servants to deal with that sort of tedious day to day stuff, but I suspect the answer is deeper than that.

So why are there so few team type tales and why don’t they end happily ever after? Firstly there are the storytelling considerations. It is important for the audience to be able to identify with someone in the story. With a suitably undefined lead character everyone can see themselves as the strong, clever protagonist. With a gang the members have to be differentiated by appearance and characteristics which narrows down the number of listeners who can identify with each one. This differentiation gives the storyteller a lot more to juggle, not just remembering who is strong or fast and who is carrying which magical dodad, but also making sure they all get equal airtime. You have to keep the crowd who feel kinship with Ariel The Elven Archer as happy as the fans of Sam The Skipping Satyr.

The second reason lies in the underlying psychology of the story. When we dream we feel as if we go to strange places and meet actual people who are quite different from us. In fact all the people and places we encounter in our dreams are inside our own heads and therefore have been created by us. However much that flying unicyclist may look like your neighbour they are really a part of you. To work out what the dream means you only have to ask yourself what your neighbour, the unicycle and flying are symbols for in your own mind. Similarly, to unpick the deeper psychology of a story we first have to imagine that all the characters and events in the story, however disparate and opposed, are part of the same single psyche. Once we look at a tale from this perspective it is easy to see that we all occasionally find ourselves out of balance (persecuted by step parents), battle with our inner fears (fight monsters), free our repressed selves (rescue prince / princess) and re-unite our inner opposites (the wedding at the end): the basic elements of the classic heroic loner tale type.

Far fewer of us have our psyches split up in to a happy band of specialists. Team tales are much more likely to come from some event in the physical world. They are maps of society. To be complete they tend to show the routes to and from the central event, the good and the bad of our worldly interactions. The heroic tales are about ourselves individually, so we have a lot of them because we like thinking about ourselves. There is no coda as lost keys and dirty dishes are not concerns of the mind’s inner workings, a metaphor has no need of a car. The team tales, being about us collectively, are less likely to speak so directly to our inner psychological maps, which is a shame because I think it would be easier to build a better world if they did.

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Parental Advisory


People die in folk tales, especially kind, loving parents. People get hurt, tortured, imprisoned, eaten, turned into animals, boiled to death and shoved into ovens. Whole families are systematically wiped out until the youngest child, presumably paddling ankle deep through their kindred’s blood, tricks, traps and dismembers or cooks the clan’s psychopathic assailant.

People talk about violence on TV but it’s been part of our entertainment for thousands of years. As has sex.

Folktale farmers and fishermen fornicate with fairies, mate with mermaids and sleep with seal people. Princesses, peasant girls and goddesses alike are wooed, seduced, stripped naked, abducted and sexually assaulted whilst in a magical sleep. Heroes, villains, step relatives, trolls, witches and half siblings magically transform themselves into the likeness of protagonist’s lovers for a night of passion, often followed by gloating revenge and/or dubious offspring. When not disguising themselves as bulls, bears and swans to have sex with humans, mythical deities frequently have sexual relationships with their siblings, their mortal enemies and occasionally horses.

You see, despite what most modern people think, these stories were not created for children. They were told by firesides of an evening to a mixed audience who’s age range probably narrowed from both ends as the night wore on. Many were grown out of the lives of real people and poorly reported events. Everything that television, radio and even books are to us now, storytelling was to our forebears.

When I tour pubs I am unsurprisingly expecting my audience to be adult. Characters in the stories may be driven by hormonal motivations that make little sense to the pre-adolescent and other characters, a drunk and abusive giant for instance, are more believable with a touch of post watershed language. That is not to say that it becomes a tsunami of filth and gore but these are stories originally created by and told for adults. An intelligent, well behaved child of say 10 would be able to cope with most of the material but I wouldn’t recommend many of the tales for a six year old simply on length of time and level of plotting. Kids under seven have neither the attention span, the narrative facility, nor the vocabulary necessary to be anything other than mildly baffled by the experience.

Of course I also do sessions for families at festivals, fun days and the like where I select the material that is less likely to horrify and bemuse the youngsters. It is a tricky business, age appropriateness. On the face of it a tale of two abandoned kids who rob, are imprisoned by and eventually roast a cannibal might be considered parental advisory, yet few would question Hansel and Gretel’s place in the cannon of little children’s literature. Death is part of the point of the stories: things change, people die, life continues. The stories are a safe way for children to experience fear and loss and learn how to overcome them. For all their fantastical settings, folk tales hold up a mirror to life and help us cope. Each tale is a learning experience, a map for dealing with the problems that life throws at us, including sex and death. However old we are we keep needing to revise these lessons and what better way than with a story in your local pub?

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Story, Writing and Literature


The relationship between oral tradition and literature is as complex and fluid as the relationship between any immortal and deific parent and child.


Writing was the offspring of Commerce, born amongst the hustle and bustle of the earliest cities, dedicated to a life of record keeping, trapped in rigid columns. Although Story was ancient she never aged, being born anew every time she she was spoken, kissed in to vital life by each pair of lips she passed. As Writing grew amongst the trappings of trade, he developed his powers of description, struggling for accuracy, detailing the specific. Story, ever seeking new experiences to incorporate in to her repertoire, was drawn to Writings descriptive skills, impressed by his unfailing memory.

Writing was barely old enough to grow a beard when they met but Story teased him with adventures, one moment wild and exotic, the next full of homely warmth. Seduced by Story’s enigmatic beauty and the worlds of wonder she laid before him, Writing broke free from the constraints of the trade ledgers and set out to woo Story. He followed her faithfully across the lands and hung on her every word. Flattered by the attention Story gave herself to him, fell breathlessly under his stylus in his bed of clay… and in the heat of their union Literature was born.

Though they often travel together, Story remains ever young and fresh while her daughter, Literature, stiffens with age. Writing, trained from birth to be pedantic, constantly complains of Story’s inconsistency. Sometimes Literature tires of her mother’s flightiness and will endeavour to trap her in her pages. Whilst Writing still loves Story he loves his daughter more and will often side with her. Together they bind Story in chapters of finely woven prose.

Sooner or later one of Story’s old lovers will find her, recognizing her grace behind the lines of greying grammar. The storyteller, who loved her as she was and loves her just as much as she is now, tickles her with their tongue and, laughing, she slips free from the chains of ink and dances once more in the air, leaping from mouth to ear as husband and daughter follow behind entranced, reminded of their love, desperate to catch her again.

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Izzy Wizzy Let’s Get Busy


If I say “Wizard” what is the picture that comes to mind? A thin man with grey hair and beard hanging down over his long robes whose eyes twinkle with kindly mischief and deep wisdom while he gently leans on his simple staff? How about sorcerer? Although the beard and robe probably remain I expect the image you have is of a much darker, less benevolent man. I’m also fairly sure that the word “witch” will conjure visions of an ugly crone in a pointy hat whose intentions are largely evil. A wizard who practices his art to cause harm is denoted with the adjective “dark”, otherwise it is generally assumed he is a good guy. Witches on the other hand have to have “white” added before one can be sure they are on the side of good and although “wicked” is often employed for the baddies it tends to be just for emphasis.

The popularity of tales such as Hansel and Gretel is probably part of the problem. A greater familiarity with a broader range of folk tale shows that witches are just as likely as wizards to use their power for the benefit of the ordinary people, and where there is a wicked witch there is usually a wise woman who knows enough about magic to counteract their spells, which surely makes them a witch too, doesn’t it?

Now this is interesting because the term “Wizard” was originally “wise-art” and could refer to any gender. It was applied to those who had a knack for predicting events, or seeing in to the future and only later came to include workers of magic and enchantment. “Witch”, also originally an androgynous term, started its journey in the verb “wiccian”, meaning to use spells, and apparently travelled the other way, incorporating foresight, until the two words achieved parallel meaning in the late fifteen hundreds when Reginald Scot wrote that “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch,’ or ‘she is a wise woman.’ ”

So what went wrong? Whilst it would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of the medieval church and its witch hunts of the sixteen hundreds, our Saxon and Viking ancestors both held a belief in the value of physical skills in swordplay and sheer brute strength. This gave them a deeply ingrained distrust of magic users who were seen as somehow cheating, it might be acceptable to slip on a shirt one had enchanted to deflect spears but a true warrior wouldn’t be seen taking a sorcerer into battle with them; rather like the nineties attitude that “nerds” were fine when people wanted their computer fixed but generally considered a bit too weird to invite down the pub after work. The religious persecutions of the middle ages, although a hideous abuse of power to eliminate the competition, were also merely an inverted popularity contest playing on the deeply rooted prejudices of the populace.

How wizards survived the propaganda is, I believe, down to a story: the myth of a strong, skilled, honourable king who gathered a band of knights, each with great prowess of arms, and fought for fairness. Through many re-writes the story was progressively christianised which helped it keep its popularity over several centuries and avoid censure from the church. It is a story which would not work without a key character, king Arthur’s friend and adviser, the wizard Merlin, who set the template for all the great wizards who have come since.

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

 

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