Tag Archives: Summer

Tales Which Want Telling

It’s July, many of you will be going on holiday, whether you are sat around a camp fire, spending evenings in tavernas or relaxing on a Mediterranean beach with delicious bread and olives, wine and good company you could find the ideal space for a story. Some years ago, on tour with Pressgang in Italy I told the first half of “Jack The Cunning Thief” to the guitarist, Damian Clarke and his three sons with white sand, blue sea and an olive grove as the backdrop. I promised, as the boys were sent off to bed, that at some point I would tell them the second half of this two part story. Roll on 15 years to the eldest’s wedding night: another beach, this time in Dorset with a crackling camp fire instead of the chorus of cicadas, and this story, so long in gestation, made sure it got out and told.

Some stories just push themselves forward, they definitely want to be told, and few are so patient. Often something someone says or even just a feeling will have a story leaping forward, occasionally even pushing the legend I was intending to tell out off the way just as I step in front of an audience. These inspired tellings are often the best and most magical, moments when one feels in tune with the universal flow, or that the story has chosen to tell itself because someone needs to hear it.


In “The story not told; the song not sung” the main character is a woman who has a story and a song inside her but she does not tell her story and does not sing her song. Oppressed within her for many years and never given voice they turn against her. One afternoon as she falls asleep the story and the song decide they have had enough and make a break for it, pausing only to exact revenge for their long captivity. The story crawls out of her and on reaching the door transforms itself into a pair of muddy workmen’s boots, her song leaps out and as it flies across the room falls into the shape of a man’s jacket hanging on the back of the door. Clearly when her husband comes home and finds another man’s things making themselves at home in his house he is none too pleased. Her denial of any knowledge of the items, or any man who might be connected with them, does nothing to calm his fury and he storms off to sleep in the Temple of the Monkey God while she waits up late into the night hoping for him to return.

Now, everyone knows that the flickering lights of the candles go to stay in the temple of the Monkey God when they are put out and this night her light is late arriving, as it does so it explains to the others that it is so late because of the ructions caused by the story not told and the song not sung. The Husband, who is having trouble sleeping in the unfamiliar surroundings, hears the candle flame’s explanation and returns the next day to ask his wife’s forgiveness. He then requests that she save them both from further trouble by telling her tale and releasing her song in joy. However it is too late: they have both gone.


As famous folk singer Maddy Prior once said to Damian, when discussing the possibly sacrilegious idea of delivering traditional folk songs in a lively punk style, “The worst thing you can do to a folk song is to not sing it”. The same holds true for stories, if you have one inside you then, as any psychiatrist will tell you, repression is not a good idea. Your holidays may provide the perfect environment to let your stories get out into the air and remember, you never know what trouble they might cause if you don’t!



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


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Filed under stories, Storytelling, Summer

You have to kiss a lot of frogs…

Well, actually, no. You don’t. There really is no point at all in going round randomly kissing amphibians in the hope that they will become lovestruck royalty, and even less in killing them. All else aside, they have to be able to talk or the chances of them being a magical creature are slim, and even then just because our cat appeared to call me a “wingnut” the other day doesn’t make her magical. We want whole clear sentences from them, ideally ones offering assistance with a tricky situation or high speed transportation.

It’s not just frogs either, all sorts of animals can come along and start chatting away; the White Cat from the story of the same name is a sophisticated conversationalist with her own castle; the fox of The Golden Apple (well it is midsummer, they were bound to come up) from Norway is witty and erudite. One thing most of them will never do is tell you that they may be royalty, gorgeous or highly eligible and the answer to your prayers in some other way. Often it is a condition of the curse which gave them animal form that the actions they ask of you be unbiased by their previous political clout or social and financial status.

Don’t worry, statistically they are fairly unlikely to ask for a snog or even a peck on the cheek in a traditional folk tale. It is far more common for these loquacious animals to help you along with your quest and save your skin on numerous occasions, often when you are only at risk because you ignored their initial good advice. They will repeatedly prove a loyal bosom buddy to you, before politely and kindly requesting that you cut off their head. Not what one normally expects from a good friend.

So if you’ve been given a list of impossible tasks to do and the local wildlife has come over all verbose:

1) DON’T assume it’s all down to the ale or that you’re going mad and ignore them hoping they’ll go away

2) DO exactly what they say, and I mean exactly, follow those instructions carefully, you will only make more work for yourself in the long run if you don’t.

3) DON’T get smart and think you know better than they do or tweak the details because it was only a pond dweller who advised you. They’re animals that can talk so they probably do know what they’re talking about, have they not proved that on your quest?

4) DO for just a moment put aside any emotional attachment you might have to keeping them with you, if they have asked you to ritualistically decapitate them it is probably the only way to release them from their cursed state into their human form so they can make all your dreams come true (not just the weird ones involving talking animals)

5) DON’T however, get ahead of yourself and start slaughtering garrulous critters unless they specifically request you to do so (over-enthusiastic slaying has already rendered them endangered, we see very few of them around these days)

6) DO be aware that not all chatty beasts are marriageable material: some turn out to be your dead parents come back to look after you or they might just be honest to goodness, straight up, every day, perfectly normal talking animals. But that’s a story for another Folk Tales Corner.

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

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Filed under Animals, Fairytale, Folk Tale, Quest, Storytelling, Summer, Talking Animals, Transformation

Harvest Time

Harvest used to be the centre of the year for pretty much the entire population, it is what the long school summer holiday was for, It wasn’t time off: it was time to do some real work! We may not be the agrarian society we once were but we all know of annual events that hold great importance and carry extra stress. Tax returns, exams, stock take; we plan for them, work towards them and celebrate with a drink when they are over, but we don’t really talk about them… unless something goes wrong.

So, harvest appears in folk tale as a marker in time or a backdrop of activity that was understood by any audience, in the same way that shopping in the third week of December might be nowadays. If the actual business of bringing in the crops is important to the plot then you can be pretty sure that trouble is on it’s way. Despite many tales from other times of the year indicating the superiority of the female intellect, sending a young wife off with a scythe to tackle a field on her own is apparently a bad idea as she is likely to fall asleep or accidentally cut her own clothes off, instead of cutting the crop, and then suffer a personality crisis as she fails to recognise herself and thinks she must be someone else!

The most well known tale of harvest is “The Tops And The Butts”. This simple tale has been told, with little variation, across the whole agricultural world for hundreds of years. Sometimes the protagonists are a fox and a bear, or some other animal pairing, but mostly it’s a human farmer and a devil / bogle / boggart / (insert supernatural being of choice). The farmer (or fox) is preparing a field for planting when their antagonist appears and claims that they own the land. After some negotiation the devil (or bear) allows the farmer to proceed on condition that they share the crop. The wily farmer (or… you’ve got the point by now) asks their new partner if they would like the tops or the bottoms and when the poor dupe says “tops” the farmer plants beets, resulting in a full harvest for himself and a pile of waste leaves for his “landlord”.

Naturally the next year the bogle requests the bottoms, whereupon the farmer plants wheat and pulls in a second harvest whilst leaving the fall guy with roots and stubble. Many versions end there with the stooge muttering “This land is rubbish! You can keep it.” and wandering off in a huff.

This breaks the story telling rule that ‘Anything that happens twice happens three times.’ and I rather like it for that. Some variants though, have a third year which I am sure has been added on to make up the magic three. The field is divided in two along it’s length, planted with wheat and both parties agree to a mowing match: whoever finishes their half first gets the whole field. So the farmer cheats by planting thin metal rods amongst the wheat in the other’s half which sufficiently slow their opponent, who thinks the scythe-blunting rods are “burdocks”, that he gives up the race.

Entertaining as it is, “The Tops And The Butts” does not stand up to examination if what you want is a moral at the end of your story. The boggart’s ownership of the land may not be proven but neither is it disputed and he gives no provocation for the farmer’s trickery save being different and maybe a little slow. The story seems to suggest it’s ok to cheat people of other races, that the ‘civilised’ farmer has a right to displace the ‘ignorant’ native from their ancestral foraging grounds.

For a more ethically palatable harvest tale I recommend “The Field of Genies” which not only teaches the whole process of preparation and planting but warns against the employment of forces we do not fully comprehend. The genies who own the field (and increase in numbers exponentially as the story progresses) enthusiastically repeat the actions of the farmer, which is tremendously helpful when doing the back-breaking tasks of digging and raking etc, but accidentally giving them the wrong actions to follow results in disaster.

As artificial fertilisers and indiscriminate pesticides deplete our soil or reduce our essential biodiversity and genetically engineered crops promise magical returns that are too good to be true, we would do well to listen to the message of this old yarn.

Be it harvest, exam or stock take, if you want to reap the rewards then you have to put in the hard work: There are no short cuts.

Here’s to living happily ever after …until the next adventure!


Filed under August, Folk Tale, stories, Storytelling, Summer

Golden Apples at Midsummer

In contrast to May day, June’s significant date, the summer solstice, has surprisingly few references in traditional folk tales and mythology considering it’s modern popularity. However, the seaways are clear; the roads less muddy; the crops have all been planted and harvest is a couple of months away: now is the time to set out on impossible missions in search of improbable objects!

The spur to action is often a sickness that has fallen upon a loved one and only the Water of Life (from the Fountain of Youth at the end of the world, guarded by an ogre/ giant/ multi-headed dragon) or a Golden Apple will cure them. Not much to ask. You might think that the apple is a better bet but the quest for the Golden Apple invariably leads our hero to far flung lands and, of course, in to myriad dangers facing exotic beasts.

It’s unsurprising that, with all these brave youths off scrumping, there is another set of tales which start with a king whose wondrous tree of life-giving fruit is raided every summer. The cure for this trouble tends to be the procurement of an equally wondrous, brightly plumaged bird which a posse of princes is dispatched to acquire.

Now, folktales are as much about learning as entertainment, so if you find yourself  in a foreign land hunting for a mythical avian or metallic fruit, here are some tips:
1. Horses, foxes, wolves (in fact, any kind of canine) and the maid at the first castle you are imprisoned in, should all be treated with respect as they usually turn out to be endowed with astonishing magical powers. Without their help you are likely to be eaten, put to death or left wandering and lost in the first impenetrable forest you come to.
2. If your elder brothers are on the same quest, watch out: They will nick anything valuable you have obtained and leave you stuck in a swamp as soon as look at you. (But don’t worry, after your supernatural assistant has sorted it all out you can really tick them off by forgiving them at the end of the story).

In the Norse myth “The Theft of Idun’s Apples”, the giant Thiazi, with help from Loki, steals Idun and her Golden apples of immortality from Asgard (home of the Norse Gods).  With these life giving treasures gone the Gods start to grow old, staggering and stammering beneath the hot summer sun until Loki, as he so often does, makes good again. This time it is achieved by borrowing Freya’s falcon skin to fly out and retrieve Idun. Thiazi pursues Loki in the form of an eagle, gets his wings singed, crash lands in Asgard and, in an almost Pythonesque scene, is set upon by the geriatric Gods before Idun hands out her apples thus returning the Gods to their youthful vigour.

But why all this fuss over apples? Wouldn’t golden ones be a bit difficult to chew? Well, some scholars believe that the unidentified illness suffered by the princess/ king/ Gods is actually scurvy, the cure for which is vitamin C. Come the summer, the fruit from the previous year had been used up, hence the need to travel to warmer lands. Historically ‘apple’ was a general term for any fruit: a Golden Apple is an orange!

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

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Filed under June, Quest, stories, Summer