Tag Archives: Storytelling

Man’s Beast Friend


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Real Men Get The Needle


I have just come back from a busy summer working at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth on HMS Warrior “The First Iron-clad”. I had been brought in to create a suite of stories and train the staff in the art and craft of storytelling. As part of the application I wrote a bit about emotional engagement in historical interpretation:

A needle in a museum display case is often only noted for it’s surprising size and bluntness, but for large parts of history they were an essential part of an everyday toolkit carried by half the population. They were items of value, in the middle ages an entire play, “Gammer Gurton’s Needle” was constructed around the loss of one, yet they remain unexciting to the modern observer (like you, you’re not excited yet are you?) unless we can put the needle in the hands of a person with a life and a story that illustrates the importance of the needle to them. Even this may not work if we simply give the needle to a tailor and have them make a nice frock coat for Mr. Corbett to wear to the fair.

What if Mr. Tailor has a big order in but has been taken ill, leaving his poor arthritic mother to hand sew thirty naval gunner’s shirts by the end of the month?
Even then, it may be hard to grasp the real, personal hardship of the job unless we take some time illustrate old Mrs. Tailor’s struggle: What does the cloth feel like? Does the repetitive pushing of the needle through the layered seams make her shoulders cramp? Is it hard to see by the single candle which is all she can afford to use?”

Although factually inaccurate on a couple of points (as you shall see), this set me off on a train of thought: Vikings were famously well turned out, snappy dressers with a penchant for bling. They were also away from home for quite long periods of time, engaged in heavy manual labour and the occasional tussle. How did they maintain their sartorial elegance? Who sewed up the sword cuts in their expensive silk tunics? What about other travelling men? Explorers, traders, army and navy, lumberjacks? How is it that these men didn’t come home in rags and tatters?

The answer is simple: they sat down, they took out their needles and they sewed.

On HMS Warrior in the eighteen sixties this was directly illustrated by three things. Firstly, the records show that on joining the navy each sailor was given appropriate lengths of cloth and expected to make up the two pairs of trousers, shirts, collars and so forth that comprised their uniform themselves (so much for Mr. tailor’s big order!); secondly, amongst the personal items each crew member kept in their ‘ditty box’ was their sewing kit (so significantly more than half the population were carrying needles around); and finally there is a quote from a certain Mr. Dickens, an author of some repute, who visited the great vessel in 1863 which paints a picture of quiet domesticity: “some were working hearth rugs by a quilting process or embroidering pictures… We are all familiar with the British Seaman as a daring man, and a light-hearted cheery man but here we see him as a homely man, mending his clothes or shoes”. Those plying their needles in the quote above include Royal Marine Artillery Gunners who were crewing the biggest, most powerful guns yet made. It seems the rougher and tougher the job the more likely it was that a man would have to engage with the delicate art of needlecraft. If history is anything to go by, real men sew!

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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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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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Words Are Magic


A sorcerer can invoke a magic incantation and enchant you with a spell. All they need is to speak some well ordered words, give voice to a crafty verse and the tale is told. I am not speaking figuratively, I mean it literally.


In Old English a spell meant a “story, saying, tale, history, narrative, fable; discourse or command”. A speller was somebody who read out words and the title was most often applied to preachers who would read the “good spells”, or good stories, which became the God spells and finally the gospel. It is from the action of “spelling”, reading out the story word by word, that the term changed it’s meaning and became attached to the letters rather than the narrative.

An open book exuding energy and power.

Being enchanted is also far less weird than you are probably thinking. The “en” means “in”, the “chant” bit is just that, some poetic words. Chant goes back through French and latin all the way to a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root word: *Kan- meaning “to sing”. This is pretty easy magic to be honest, all you have to do is sing a well known song and if people join in then they have become “sung in”, you have enchanted them.

An incantation, for all its portentous sound, is exactly the same thing, “in” and “cant” having come from the same roots as “en” and “chant”; it is another “in song”. To “invoke” it you only have to speak it, or put it “in voice”.

But what about magic? There is a postulated PIE root *Magh-, meaning “to be able, powerful”. By the time of the early Greeks we have “Magos”, a noun which means “a learned person of the priestly cast”. The powerful capability lies in the learning but you can only get access to that knowledge if you are born in to the right tribe. The power this tribe of capable people wielded became known as “magike” and, since they weren’t sharing, it was obviously very mysterious.

I realise I have just explained where the word “magic” comes from but not what it actually is. Bear with me and I shall unravel this final part of my spell. There is another Proto-Indo-European root I would like to introduce you too: *Ser-, which has survived in our own words series, serried and sermon amongst others and means “to line up, put in a row, or thread together”. It has also come down to us through the Latin for “one who influences fate or fortune”, which in English is a Sorcerer. So, somewhen between these two ancient lexical points, someone was exerting influence on things, effecting change, by putting something in order, by arranging something in lines.

Given everything we have just been talking about, it seems clear to me that the magic power of the bygone Magos was sorting secret symbols in to charms and spells. Yes, charm is another word from that *Kan- root. Or to translate from magical language into mundane: the mystery capability of the first sorcerers was lining up letters to make words and arranging words into songs and stories. The carefully guarded learning of the earliest magicians was poetry, storytelling, writing and reading.

So if you sometimes yearn for a more mystical life, remember you too can type some terms in to a tidy row or organise some expressions in an exciting order then speak or sing your scintillating spell, who knows what effect you might have?
Words are magic, in every sense, and in every sense magic is words.

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

The Travelling Talesman

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Use Your passport While You Can


It is a curious factor of ghost lore that they are geographically limited. After our spirit is freed from the confines of its fleshly vehicle one might imagine that we would enjoy the liberty, the new found flying ability and ineffectiveness of walls, fences and other impediments to movement. I can readily imagine that one might undertake a lengthy world tour to catch all the sights missed during a life too busy and financially restricted to have involved the Taj Mahal and so forth. It would not surprise me at all to find myself in the company of several other freshly released souls, breezing lightly past the queues and gaily wafting through turnstiles. But no, it appears that those of us who stay on this earth after our physical demise remain quite specifically restricted by the boundaries of the material world.

Although there are one or two ghosts that are seen in coaches or on horses (usually headless) riding about on the roads, they don’t seem to make use of the extensive connectivity of the road system, their nocturnal journeys being proscribed, like spectral trams, to a specific route. The odd deceased monarch is inclined to show up at more than one of their previous homes, though they seem to manage without haunting the transport systems in between. The great majority of ghosts very rarely roam beyond the confines of a single house, in fact their spatial limitation is often to a solitary room or even a specific spot in one room. Some don’t even get a room but are doomed to an eternity in a corridor, which probably explains the moaning.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. In japan you can be anywhere in the country and still encounter Kuchisake-onna, the Slit-Mouthed Woman. She waits for lone pedestrians in dark and narrow alleyways then steps in front of them and asks the rather forward question
“Am I beautiful?”
She will have her mouth covered, back in medieval times she used a fan or a scarf but nowadays she hides her face with a surgical mask like those worn by many health conscious occupants of modern Japanese cities. Regardless of the answer she will then reveal her jaws, along with the gruesome mouth-to-ear gashes from which she gets her name, and ask what you think now. If you answer yes she will produce a butchers knife or a pair of scissors and cut your cheeks to match hers. If you answer no she will walk away but secretly follow you home and stab you in your sleep.

The story is that her samurai husband found out she had a lover and used his sword to cut her face in to its hideous grin asking “who will find you beautiful now?” Then he decapitated her but was soon filled with remorse and turned his sword on himself.

Quite why Kuchisake-onna is not subject to the laws of locus that bind so many other spooks I do not know. Thankfully, whilst she can waft at will around the Land Of The Rising Sun she doesn’t appear to have found her way beyond its shores. Maybe she is restricted to a location after all, just a very big one. So visit this world while you can because it seems that when we don’t move on completely we don’t move at all.

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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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