Tag Archives: Storytelling

Off We Go Again Then


For several years near the beginning of my storytelling career I used an old gag about a hedgehog as my encore number. It explains the origin of the well known phrase for getting on with a task: “Off we go again then, as the hedgehog said to The Devil”. I first learnt it as a short filler story for a guided Performance Archaeology walk at Lechlade. Between the very interesting historic town centre and the very interesting historic riverside tower, there was quite a long section of footpath past garden fences and allotments which was very uninteresting. However, we needed an excuse to stop and let the audience catch their breath and whilst they did so it was somewhat incumbent upon myself and my archaeologist compatriot, as walk leaders, to entertain them while they did so. That, to a fair extent, being the point of the exercise. 

The thing with guided walks is that your location is part of the show, it is both the inspiration and the backdrop, the set and the subject. Having chosen a specific site to build one’s performance on, it is rather a requirement that said performance be site specific. Unfortunately at this particular pause in forward locomotion the only landscape features available to talk about on the otherwise flat, floodplain fields, were a hedge and a ditch. Neither of these could be conclusively proven to have historical provenance, so it would obviously be the storyteller’s job to fill the yawning chasm with excitement. The brief then, was to tell a short story somehow connected to the aforementioned hedge and ditch, and since the majority of the history on the walk was from the Middle Ages it should preferably be a medieval story… about a hedge or a ditch. I expect I don’t need to elaborate on the unsurprising paucity of material in the ‘Hedge and Ditch’ genre of medieval folktale. Oh the conundrums we contrive for ourselves!

What the Middle Ages did have in copious quantities were stories about The Devil. I say, The Devil but I should say “devils”, plural. Although the hellish antagonist is mostly referred to as “The” singular, one and only, definite article “Devil”, the plots have him killed off or permanently confined to the flaming pits of the nether regions too often for us to be able to accept the entire trope as the single saga of one solo demon. A quick shufti at the sources of some of his many names will also demonstrate that we are looking at more than one. For instance Beelzebub was a pun used by the early Israelites to insult a Philistine god called Beelzebul. Beel meant “Lord”, Ze can be read as “of the” and Bul translates as “heavenly home”. Bub on the other hand, meant “flies”. Leaving the dubious humour of the pre-biblical authors aside, it is clear that this is not the same fella who sat at Yahweh’s right hand until he got too big for his boots and had his wings clipped.

The obsessively Christian society of the Medieval period was beset by a plethora of devils. One of the problems of a monotheistic religion is that one has to do something with all the other deities that are hanging around. The obvious solution is to deny their heavenly status and send them to hell, to quite literally demonize them. Since there is only one god the general populace tend to simplify the over subscription of hell by assigning the activities of numerous underworld denizens to the one primary evil doer. The attributes of the foremost fiend are transferred the other way and all manner of newly ex-gods find themselves sporting horns, tails and hairy legs as they are forced to conform to the stereotype.

Amongst the great pile of devil related tales of the time I managed to find “How The Hedgehog ran The Devil To Death” which has a hedge and, more importantly, a ditch in it. I was going to tell it to you but I have been sidetracked by devils and demons, not unreasonably since they will be the subject of my autumn tour. Maybe if you come along I will tell it you then, in the meantime I must get back to my research. 
Off we go again then…

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If Truth Be Told


Sometimes I am surprised by something story related that turns up on the net, not because it is on the net but because I remember being told it at primary school and am amazed that it was considered appropriate. One such item is a famous painting and it’s attendant story: “The Truth coming out of the well” by Jean-Léon Gérôme. The painting features a rather pleasant Mediterranean courtyard corner with a vine climbing up the walls. In the foreground a young lady is stepping over a low wall wearing nothing but a shocked expression.

The story that goes with the picture is that the Truth and the Lie meet one day. The Lie says “What a lovely day”! The Truth looks around and has to agree, since the day is rather nice. The two amble around together for a while and eventually arrive at a well. The Lie tells the Truth: “The water is very nice, let’s take a bath together!” The Truth, once again suspicious, tests the water and discovers that it indeed is very nice. They undress and start bathing.

Now, I’m not sure what you think but, as a 6 year old I was dubious about the concept of random strangers meeting up and going skinny dipping in the water supply. I especially had trouble with the idea of taking a bath in a well as this would surely necessitate some level of naked climbing or levitation, on top of which they had no towels or soap with them and the whole episode seemed rather unlikely. Looking back I realise I must have been a much more literal child than the adult I grew into and clearly had issues with extended metaphor, so for anyone else who is struggling with details of this nature I should probably suggest that they are unimportant, just the dressing, let them go. It is an allegory and as such it is the interrelation of the two characters that we are supposed to be paying attention to.

Suddenly, the Lie gets out, puts on the Truth’s clothes and legs it. The Truth is unsurprisingly rather miffed and clambering out of the well runs around trying to find the Lie and reclaim her clobber. The World, seeing the Truth naked, turns its gaze away, with contempt and rage.

And this is the bit I had trouble with in terms of appropriateness. There seemed to be a double standard about the nakedness issue. If we are not supposed to look at her naked then why are you showing us a picture? Also, someone’s nicked her clothes, why is everyone being mean to her? Furthermore, I really didn’t like the ending which leaves the world a very dark and hopeless place. Is this really the world view to present to infants?


The poor Truth, so the story goes, went back to the well and hid in it, feeling ashamed of her nakedness. Since then the Lie travels the world freely, dressed as the Truth, satisfying the needs of society, because, the World, in any case, harbours no wish at all to meet the naked Truth.

See what I mean? Grim. Today though, I am a storyteller and I know things that I did not know then. I know that Truth did not stay in the well. She crept out under cover of darkness and turned up at the Storyteller’s door. There she was taken in, given food, comfort, a warm bed and gentle embraces. Now each day the Storyteller dresses her in material of metaphor, wraps her in robes of fantasy, heightens her appeal with hats of hyperbole and sends Truth out, hiding in plain sight, to whisper in to peoples hearts.

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

The Travelling Talesman

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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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