I’m quite visual as storytellers go. I stand up to do my tellings and move about quite a bit using hand gestures and even elements of mime to emphasise or elucidate a point. Photographers are always annoyed because all they get are a series of vaguely orange blurs. Nevertheless I have always had the occasional member of the audience who likes to listen without the aid of their eyes. These rare individuals will sit back, often stretching out their legs, hands folded over midriff, eyes closed, chin on chest, and let their imaginations provide the pictures. Whilst appearing to be asleep they are in fact the person in the room who is most deeply involved in the story.
Our ability to translate the words we hear in to pictures projected on some figmental screen in the virtual cinema of our occipital lobes is the very root of imagination. It is quite literally where dreams are made. Nowadays we are rather inclined to underuse this phenomenal effect, opting instead for a continuous feed of external images through magazines, televisions, computers and smart phones. I think this is a shame as our inner cinematographers, set designers and artists are all quite exceptional at their jobs if given a chance.
As part of a workshop I ran for Poole museum service recently I used the following exercise. Having previously handed out some stories for the participants to read through a few times I asked them to sit in a comfortable position, relax and close their eyes. I then asked them to bring to mind a picture that they had in their head from the story. I went to each one in turn and asked them, with eyes sill closed, to tell the rest of us what they saw in their mental picture. After a general description I asked them to zoom in on one part or item in their scene and relate this detail. The results were wonderful. The closer they went, the more they saw. Textures and colours sprang to life as they turned their attention to them. “A gateway” became “An arch of carefully chiseled, yellow stone with the iron spikes of a raised portcullis sticking through a slot in the roof and the names of the guards scratched in to the wall”. Try it for yourself sometime, you don’t have to speak the words, just have a good look in to a picture you have in your head and see how high resolution it is.
Of course, now and again, the person at my performance with their eyes closed is just very tired. Sometimes so tired they actually are asleep. It doesn’t happen often but when it does this is fine too. For many people storytelling is associated with bedtime. The whole point of storytelling is to transport the listener to another plane of existence, to move them beyond the mundane world to a limnal place on the borders of the land of dreams, once in a while you are bound to lose one over the edge. How often do we give ourselves the chance to drift gently over Lake Slumber into the Land Of Nod with our minds eye being fed a stream of fantastic images via our ears? In fact I quite like it if the occasional audient nods off, it lets me know I have been taking the rest of them in the right direction. Storytelling is the one art form in which your audience falling asleep is not an insult, indeed, If I have relaxed them to the point of sleep then I think that qualifies as a job well done. The sleeper is like someone who has taken the coach trip in to the forest but wandered off from the guided tour to have their own adventure, a scout in the borderlands of consciousness. If we are lucky they may come back with a new story to tell.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.
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.
Fairies as such, are fairly limited in Geographic scope, being primarily a European phenomenon. Their name and characteristics can vary significantly across this area too, but there is a type of fairy encounter which is common throughout the lands, widely different in the specifics yet exactly the same in it’s outcome, and so prolific one has to wonder if there is some truth behind this tale type.
As is often the case with close encounters of the fairy kind the person, whether young lad, maiden or wandering drunk, who features in the story is captivated by faint musical, magical sounds. Following the entrancing harmony they come upon the Good Folk dancing, singing and making merry. Often they will watch unobserved from behind a tree or rock at first but soon the music will pull them into the whirling dance. It may be that they stay for a couple of hours, nights, weeks, or even three months. At the absolute maximum it might be seven years. It would seem that this period is full of intoxicating joy and pleasantness. Nevertheless, at some point they decide to head for home. On arriving back in their village, or castle they find many things changed and unfamiliar, all the people they knew are gone and their home is occupied by strangers. On further enquiry they find that their family are long dead and there is only a faint memory of a story about someone by their name having vanished without trace more than a lifetime or two ago. As they struggle to come to grips with this news they age rapidly and crumble to dust.
Sometimes the plot may have a longer set up. King Herla goes to a far land to witness the wedding of a fairy king; Oisin is wooed by a beautiful princess from the land of youth. In each case they return to discover hundreds of years have passed. Interestingly, in both of these cases a change of epic proportions has fallen upon the land. In Herla’s case he leaves a British King and returns to a land long under Saxon rule. The Irish Oisin leaves a pagan Eire and comes back to tell the tales of Finn mac Cumhal to a fascinated Saint Patrick.
Curiously it is by no means guaranteed that a sojourn in the Otherworld will lead to a powdery demise. Pwyll Prince of Dyfed manages to count off a year and a day in Annwyvn
with exactitude before coming home the same year and a day later in his own land. Many others come and go between the lands with less loss of time than I encounter whilst eating breakfast. Certainly the fairies themselves have no problem reconciling time between our two plains, happily making and keeping appointments accurately to the hour.
So are these tales based in fact? Possibly it was common for people to leave home without warning, maybe falling in with Romanies or other nomads in a rush of excitement after accidentally joining them for a few nights revels, then losing track of time before coming home to find their family had died in their absence. It is easy to see how the tale might be elaborated and exaggerated by re-telling until it spans hundreds of years.
…and yet, the rapid onset of the time spent in the land of youth and the ensuing sudden de-hydration are less easy to see being the creation of so many different storytellers in so many assorted places. So if you are out in the forest or on the moors of a night and your ears are assailed by the most delectable melodies you have ever heard, take thought before you let your feet follow the captivating rhythm: your life may never be the same again.
Recently I’ve seen lots of people are describing themselves as storytellers. The term is applied to film directors, authors and journalists (with some justification) but I’ve also seen it commandeered by marketing firms and a company of “change consultants” who actually named themselves The Storytellers. Facebook calls stuff you post “stories”, even if it’s just an automatic post created because you click “like” on a page about poodle shaving (not a euphemism). Storytelling is a popular concept. The reason for this is that it is powerful stuff and in skilful mouths it can change the world. The most famous book in the world is a book of stories and the most famous person in all history was a storyteller*. Here’s an updated version of a tale that appears in one and is attributed to the other:
An ordinary man was driving through Manchester on a main road. He stopped at some traffic lights and a gang of thugs car-jacked him, beat him, stripped him of everything of value including his clothes and left him on the pavement. As he lay there bleeding and barely conscious a tabloid journalist walked up but, on seeing the man he crossed the street and went on his way. Soon after, a peer of the realm also skirted round the fallen man. Next an East European immigrant came along. Seeing the battered victim he stopped and called an ambulance, then stayed with the man by his hospital bed, helping the nurses tend him until he had regained consciousness and his relatives had been found.
You probably recognised the story about half way through and are maybe wondering about the adaptations. The parable of The Good Samaritan has become somewhat diluted by time and use, it’s meaning nowadays often being seen as little more than “be good to strangers”. The part played here by a journalist was originally a Judaic priest, someone who the predominantly Jewish audience that Jesus was speaking too would see pretty much every day, and by whom they would be given constant instruction on how to live their lives. Even if you strenuously avoid the tabloids the stories they choose to tell become the lead stories for the television news and the subject of conversations with friends. In modern Britain we have no cognate for the Levite (the original second passer-by), a hereditary position with the responsibility for reading certain passages and services in the temple; the only hereditary positions of power in our society reside in the House Of Lords. At the time of the first telling of this tale the Jews had a pretty poor view of the Samaritans, who were very closely related being Israelites who had not gone in to exile in Babylon and followed their own version of the Torah. There were plenty of candidates for the role of the Samaritan.
So in the telling of this tale Jesus was making a series of points, challenging prejudices and assumptions. The main thrust being that goodness rests not in who you are but in what you do and whether you are prepared to do it for everyone, even those who may despise you. It is a masterful piece of storytelling, extraordinarily compact with hardly a word more than the bare minimum necessary and packed with meaning. The bit that is often overlooked from our modern perspective is that he was having a massive dig at the established voices of moral behaviour in his society, essentially calling them hypocrites… but indirectly through the story.
The thing that the 21st century would be storytellers have in common is that they are trying to influence us, to change our behaviour. How much effect they have depends on how many of us repeat their yarns. We have to be careful how much of the tattle of the tabloids we pass on and which facebook memes we share, editing out anything that is filled with prejudice and hate. Having filtered those that might do good we must be skilful in passing them on so that they remain potent. It can be a tricky business, this storytelling; Jesus was such a powerful storyteller that the establishment killed him for it.
* Though I did find an online poll that put Michael Jackson ahead!
Do you know the song “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies”? Sure you do! It’s the one in which the lord comes home to find his wife has traded all the luxuries he offers for a nomadic life in the wild and gone off with the travelling folk. What few people know is that there is a song that goes before the famous one. “The Gypsy Bride” tells how the girl was abducted from her people by the nobleman and married against her wishes. So in the later, more well-known song she was not running away: she was going back home.
Discoveries like this can change one’s whole perception of a story. I have recently come across a string of variations on a story called “The Princess On The Glass Mountain”, the meat of which is that a princess sits on top of a glass mountain with a golden apple and the chap who can get the apple also gets to marry the princess. Suitors from all over embarrass and exhaust themselves for three days whilst the hero of our tale, using the help of a series of magical horses and increasingly flashy armour, gets a little further up each day until he wins the fruit and the girl.
How he gets his magical help is the business of the first half of the story and varies wildly but fortunately that does not concern us here. What I find of most interest is that whilst the winning of a royal spouse elevates the adventurer from rags to riches, in some versions the hero starts off as a prince who loses his position and wealth, giving the story a more circular riches-to-rags-to-riches-again form. This apparently disposable preface is common in other tale types too. Cinderella, in her assorted permutations, is sometimes a princess brought low and other times a poor girl brought even lower.
So is there a reason for this fundamental switch? Surely everyone loves a poor-child-done-good yarn so why change it? Or if the silk-to-sacking-and-back tale is the original why did it get truncated?
Unlike many other changes in stories this one has a very distinct and practical purpose which has nothing to do with the workings of the story and everything to do with the audience. Back in the medieval world, the ruling classes were very particular about purity of blood and would have had a storyteller thrown out (or worse) for suggesting that a princess (or prince) might marry a common stable boy (or serving girl), no matter how handsome (or pretty) they might be. These feudal aristocrats would happily seduce their underlings but never marry them. So a noble birth was essential for any character the teller was hoping to give a royal wedding to at the end of the tale. Conversely, the poor had no such concerns and would light up with hope, as we do now, at the thought of one of our number being able to break out of poverty or ordinariness in to the celebrity high life of sovereignty. Thus these tales developed a convertible form for easy portability as the storytellers of old hiked from rural settings to royal courts and back, de-rigging and re-attaching the front ends of the stories to suit the audience.
The modern audience has seen The Raggle Taggle Gypsies gain in popularity. In our post “Lady Chatterley” age, where romantic fiction introduced previously content wives to the idea of substituting a rugged and exciting all terrain model for him indoors, the introductory Gypsy bride was quietly dropped to fit this fantasy. The full story though, with explanatory preface in place, is transformed from destructive rebellion into wholesome restoration. So if you are planning any new beginnings this January remember what you might be looking for is an old beginning.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.
Every generation likes to think they are the first, that no one has, for instance, ever dyed and spiked their hair before (the Celts were at it over two thousand years ago), or shown off their underpants (check out the medieval fashion just prior to the popularity of the codpiece), or foolishly wasted their artistic promise in an excess of booze and drugs (I point casually to the mountain of poetic corpses atop of which lie the ravaged remains of Byron and his ilk).
Outside of fashion it goes on too, I heard a programme on radio 4 the other day showing astonishment that the most recent feminist writers appear to have no idea that Germaine Greer even existed. Yet throughout the seventies I heard very little from the trailblazers of women’s rights referencing the legions of clever girls that leap from the lips of storytellers. For every fainting flower populating the pages of literature there is a ‘Maiden Wiser Than The Tsar’ or a ‘Clever Queen’ on offer from the oral tradition to redress the balance.
For those who want a full on battle of the sexes the middle ages is replete with chaste women outwitting their suitors and lusty wives cuckolding their husbands. ‘Three Wily Women’ even have a competition as to who can hoodwink her husband most. One shaves her husbands head while he is passed out drunk and on waking persuades him he is a monk; another hides her man’s clothes and tells him he is fully dressed so he walks to church naked; whilst the third gets her unfortunate spouse to believe he is dead, covers him in a shroud and then enjoys her lover in front of his baffled ‘corpse’!
The Goat Girl by Edith Corbet
Returning to the more positive application of feminine intellect, tales such as ‘Maiden wiser ..’ or ‘The Riddles’ often present a series of conundrums, unanswerable questions or impossible tasks. Sometimes these are are set by the king and other times they are posed by an outside agency threatening the kingdom whilst an army of advisors, sages and wise men have tried and failed to find solutions. It is at this point that the poor goose girl or goat herd at the edge of the kingdom comes to the rescue.
The most common scene is brought about by a challenge for the girl (who has usually already shown some wit) to come to the palace and meet the king neither indoors nor outdoors; neither in daytime nor night time; neither walking nor riding; and neither clothed nor naked. The clever girl, naturally sees through these polarised options and lies across the threshold at dusk claiming to have been dragged there by her goats and wearing nothing but a fishing net! The king is duly impressed by her lateral thinking (which is what this tale type is all about) and her appearance, so once the kingdom is secured he marries her. Now, this may not sound like a result from the modern, emancipated perspective but it did make her the most powerful woman in the country and rich to boot. It is also often not the end of the story but I’ll save the last episode for another time.
We are rarely the first to be faced with a problem, no matter how impossible. May we all avoid the trap of polarised thought and find that free thinking, clever girl inside us in our every day lives; even if her apparently fresh and new ideas might have been whispered into our subconscious by an ancient ancestor long, long ago.
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.