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 identities.
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 narrative.

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 forward.
“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.”
Muttering an 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.


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