My open blog for people who want to read my books,articles, and any other things that I might produce, keep track of storytelling engagements, listen to my less demented rantings, and generally play nice (or naughty, I'm easy... as is widely known).
Power of Story
On Monday the East Anglian Daily Times featured an article which I wrote in early December, discussing both Pooka's Pageant performing arts festival and some of the ethics of storytelling. This latter is an issue that is of growing interest to me, alongside the general philosophy underpinning the art of storytelling. I expect I'll revisit the topic again in the future.
Page 1 of the EADT article is here and Page 2 here. I'm not sure how legible these scanned copies are, so the text and a very short story is below.
Storytelling article for EADT
November 7th saw the sixth annual Pooka’s Pageant
in Ipswich, a gathering of storytellers, poets, and singers who celebrate
mythology and folklore through the performing arts. Both experienced and new
performers strutted their stuff, drawing on the myths of medieval Wales, Ancient
Egypt, Japan, Iceland, and English fairy tales. The audience was appreciative,
and some money was raised for animal charities in the process.
In earlier centuries storytelling was a vital way of
preserving and sharing culture and tradition amongst mostly non-literate
peoples all over the world. Gifted poets and tellers were held in high regard
and in frequent demand amongst the royal courts and village ale-houses alike. Whilst
the significance of the oral tradition has dwindled in the western world, it remains
alive and thriving throughout the east. There was a time, in 20th
century Britain, when the practice became relegated to a means of amusing
children and regarded as being of scant relevance to sensible adults (older
readers may have fond memories of Jackanory). In recent years this has started
to change, with storytelling clubs and gigs flourishing all over the country.
There are at least three storytelling groups in Ipswich alone! Storytelling is
integral to human nature and, like a dammed up river, has broken through the
barriers placed against it.
Academics are increasingly realising that storytelling has
simply changed its form. Tales around the camp fire have simply given way to
film, TV, novels, and radio. The enormous importance of stories to modern
people can be seen from the devotion to Sherlock Holmes, which still leads to
countless letters being sent to 221b Baker Street, and the adoration of Doctor
Who fans for their favourite Time Lord and his adventures throughout time and
space. How much time do we spend not only watching, reading, or listening to
stories – but also talking about them with friends, family, and random
strangers on social media? They dominate our lives, our consciousness, and our
An interesting question raised at last year’s Pageant, and
discussed again in the aftermath of the 2015 one, was that of spiritual
ownership of stories. All religions, ancient and modern, have their corpus of
mythology, parables, and sacred tales. No religion can really be said to have
exclusive ownership over its own stories – especially in these days of search
engines, where anyone can locate practically any tale within a few clicks of a
button. The same may be said of national stories which shape cultural identity
(such as Arthurian and Robin Hood legends for the English, the tales of
Cuchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhail for the Irish), and the arguments that follow
could as well apply to a sense of nationality as they do to religious identity.
Usually when people recite stories, poems etc. from their own
spiritual tradition, they do so in a respectful manner. When those same
accounts are picked up by people to whom they are just fictional accounts, they
might be dealt with in a similar vein – or, as easily, become topics for
satire, ridicule, humour, misunderstanding, or subversion. Characters normally
presented as heroes might be reinterpreted as villains, and vice versa. When it
comes to stories held sacred by another group of people, is there a moral duty
on us to only recount those tales in a manner which true believers would
approve of? Or should there be free reign for storytellers, authors, and
scriptwriters to do as they please, and is the requirement that those offender
by a frivolous, satirical, or disrespectful account to grow a thicker skin?
In reflecting on telling tales, I don’t just mean those told
by people like me around camp fires or at village fetes. I mean stories told by
Hollywood producers, TV scriptwriters, theatrical directors, and anyone else
who picks up a story and translates it into one form of media or another. Maybe
this bone of contention becomes especially to the fore where the tale is being
told to make money, and maybe that money is not benefitting the people who
originally held that story in reverent regard. In this latter case, accusations
of cashing in and cultural appropriation start to be bandied about. That is
frequently the case when the person pocketing the money comes from a culture
that has a history of oppressing or marginalising the culture that has suddenly
become commercially viable.
If I profit financially from telling myths of the Lakota
Nation, do I have a moral obligation to share some of that money with a Lakota
charity (especially given the squalid problems that exist on so many
reservations in North America)? Or can I simply sell on somebody else’s culture
and laugh my way to the bank?
Last year I holidayed in Ireland, visiting a friend in
Galway. During the stay we dropped in at a music and storytelling event, where
my host – in a spirit of mischief – dropped me in it by telling the woman
running the show that I was also a storyteller. Whereupon she asked me to
perform. Normally I tell all manner of stories without a second thought
(sometimes with a first one, either). However, I got mild stage fright – here
was I, with a very English accent, about to tell an Irish myth at my friend’s
suggestion. I wondered if any of the local people present might be offended by
that, given all the politics that have flowed under the bridge. Would it seem
patronising to have some English twit telling Irish tales to the Irish (and
would my pronunciation of the Gaelic names grate?) I wimped out, and told an
Inuit story instead. As it turned out, half the audience were Americans so it
might not have caused much offence anyway!
People can be grievously offended by the re-visioning of an
acknowledged fictional character (consider some of the reactions every time a
new Bond or Miss Marple is cast), let alone unwarranted changes made to
representations of divine or historical figures that many regard as quite real.
Clearly offence can often be taken at the way a sacred story
can sometimes be reworked by people who don’t hold it in the same reverence.
Screenings of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ still garner complaints from
Christians. The sexualisation of Jesus in ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’
caused intense offense to many. Whether this is a reason to desist from such
productions is a matter of perspective. Censorship is seldom a good thing, but
then neither is a petulant desire to offend simply for the sake of it. A subtle
path must be trod to avoid pointless insult, whilst allowing for creative and
potentially insightful new ideas to arise.
Greek myth, the Hindu Mahabarata, and the Taoist sagas of
China have all been reworked into TV series, films, stage plays, and so forth –
some successfully, others in rather cringe-making fashion. Stories serve a
number of purposes, including the act of bonding together people who share
common tales – tying us to people of the same nationality, religion, gender
etc. Some stories brings us together with a warm glow, others unite us in a
common contempt for ruining an old favourite. Being aware of our cultural
heritage is a positive thing, and enables us to reflect on how those stories
inspire us, direction us, and sometimes limit us. Equally, it is a positive
step towards building harmony in a diverse society to become aware of the
stories from other groups – be that other religions, nationalities, political
movements, or what have you. A good storyteller (in whatever media) respects
their audience, and maybe that is a good starting point to bear in mind when
the creative amongst us might want to try a new spin on a traditional
The Wizard of Ipswich
This short story is based on historical
accounts of an 18th century cunning man (folk magician) living in
Ipswich. There are graves for members of the Winter clan in St Clement’s
graveyard, dating to the period. These may be relatives of the old mystic – one
may even be for the man himself. He served as inspiration for a chapter in my
crime anthology ‘A Dangerous Place’. This story was first told on BBC Radio
Suffolk some years ago.
Old Winter, the wise
man of Ipswich, finished gathering his magical herbs under the light of the
full moon. He hummed a ribald tune about Mad King George as he wandered home.
The January frosts made the grass crisp and gave a magical sheen to St Clements
graveyard. Old Winter hurried on as the stench of the marsh waters seeped up
through the dank soil.
As he passed the
ramshackle home of Dr Brantham a movement in the medic’s garden caught the old
wizard’s eye. A hunched figure was rummaging amongst the vegetable patch. As the
gimlet-eyed magician watched the sneak thief stuffed a dozen cabbages in a
sack, and was about to set to on stripping the remaining produce when Old
Winter startled the man by asking what he was up to.
“What’s it got to
do with you, granddad?” came the sneering response, as the burly man loomed
“Dr Brantham offers
free treatments to the poor of this parish, and with four young children of his
own to feed he can ill-afford to lose that crop.” The wizard advised, eliciting
a response that does not bear repeating. “Well then, if you like cabbages so
much, I shall leave you amongst them.”
The little wizard
pointed his walking stick, muttered some strange words and continued homeward.
It was but minutes later that he came across another surreptitious figure
loitering about Old Mother Greenwood’s shed. The youth was stacking up a great
armload of logs from the old lady’s woodpile.
“What are you
staring at, you old fool?” Hissed the hooligan. “Get out of here, if you know
what’s good for you!”
“What sort of a man
are you to steal an old woman’s fuel when the season is approaching its
coldest?” the wizard asked, and received some biologically impossible
recommendations in answer. “Well, if you are determined to carry off her wood,
then that is what I will leave you to do.”
incantation under his breath, Old Winter was home and tucked up in bed moments
before the snow began to fall.
When Dr Brantham
drew his curtains the next morning he was bewildered to see a strange man stood
like a scarecrow in the garden, covered in snow and clutching a sack. The
neighbours were summoned, and then the local constable, but neither could get
any sense from the man but that he was frozen half to death and could not move
his legs for love nor money.
Barely had the
constable finished taking the particulars of the cabbage thief, when Old Mother
Greenwood hobbled along the lane to summon him to deal with an exhausted
miscreant who was running round and round her house carrying a great pile of
logs, whilst wailing that his arms would surely drop off if the wizard did not
lift the hex.
When Old Winter
opened his front door later that January morning, a cabbage and a good-sized
log sat upon his doorstep in gratitude. Justice had been done.
I've been meaning to post a review of this book for some while, as it is one of the recommended reading texts on the Classical Polytheism module of the Religious Studies degree that I run. Brendan Myers' "The Earth, the Gods and the Soul" is an excellent resource in the study of both early pagan thought and its more modern expressions. The author summarises the key beliefs of a wide range of philosophers who either were pagan (such as Pythagoras) or whose writings have had a strong influence upon the development of pagan philosophies (such as Rousseau and Graves).
Myers' precis of the central beliefs is both accurate and succinct, and he ties the assorted ideas together to build an overarching set of arguments around the necessity for institutional structure to help in the building (or rather rebuilding) of a cohesive philosophy of the world, weaving together such strands as animism and Neo-Platonism.
The author also addresses such issues as the enchantment of t…
Today is the eve of Calan Mai - the first of May, Beltane in the Gaelic calendar. The story below is the tale of Rhiannon's child. She is described as a magical queen in the Mabinogion, but some historians and many pagans believe that she is the euhemerised form of an ancient British horse deity, Rigantona. She certainly has a presence in ritual.
The story was recorded in two halves, due to an interruption, so I have learnt how to splice them together - hopefully without causing too much discordance. Calan Mai, or Beltane, marks teh start of summer - hope you all have a peaceful, productive, and joyful one.
I recorded a rather rambling podcast for the Pagan Federation virtual moot. This is almost the same, but in this version I remembered to say what I forgot to say in their version. The theme set was 'Food for the Soul' and so I've reflected on the way in which storytelling - from novels to family narratives to mythical sagas - shapes our lives (scop's them, if you want an Anglo-Saxon pun) for the better or worse. We feed our bellies with bread, but our souls with sagas.
One day I might transmute these disparate ideas into something cohesive, but at the moment you'll just have to endure the meandering version. I've been asked to write something a bit clever for an anthology ardently read by people who are very, very clever (and some who just think they are). I'm wary of doing so because they also seem to relish ripping one another apart in the way that posturing academics and pseuds in equal measures are prone to do. If I ever manage to produce a chapter, i…