Happy Halloween if you celebrate it! Here in Australia, Halloween is not universally embraced by adults, but most kids adore it! Modern Halloween morphed from the much richer and ancient European Samhain Autumn Festival or ‘Day of the Dead’. I must write a blog about that one day, however there are lots to be found with a quick web search on ‘Samhain traditions’. It was about honouring ancestors and the shadow, noticing that nature’s energy was quietening for the coming winter, not lollies and plastic masks! The following day the light was celebrated in what became “All Saints Day”.
Banksy ‘graffiti’ art has become an intriguing, thought-provoking meme with a wide emotional range: sometimes delightfully humourous and at other times, poignant, tragic and provocative. Banksy images have made a significant political contribution, and provoked heated discussion. I heard him discussed and interviewed in ABC Radio and the young male interviewer was positively aggressive and angry towards the man, seemingly beacuse his work now commands huge sums. People refer to the “Banksy effect”. I wondered whether he is an actual person, since ‘his’ work has appeared from Bristol to Israel to the US, or is he a shifting collective? Having read a little more now , perhaps he is just one person. I know nothing about art- I just find his work stimulating and poignant and though provoking and very much in tune with what many people are feeling. But here is the link to the folktale of ‘Tipingee’.
Captain Paul Watson, reposted this fake report about Banksy’s arrest from a spoof site on FaceBook with this humourous comment:
‘Hey that’s not Banksy, I’m Banksy! Actually we all should be Banksy and everyone needs to inform the London Metropolitan Police that they are in fact the real Banksy…’ Many people didn’t read the post properly and responded as if it were true and/or as if Paul had believed it. Others responded with, ‘No I’m Banksy!’, as did I in a FB conversation with friends.
This playful phenomenon of many people pretending to be Banksy, is what reminds me of the folktale ‘Tipingee’. It is a Haitian tale of collective resistance.
In the folktale, many little girls pretend to be Tipingee, to protect her from a nasty, powerful (and magical) old man who wants to steal her away to be his slave! (If only that just happened in folktales- the stealing little girls away I mean!!) Here is a heartening, playful retelling of Tipingee from master storyteller Diane Wolkstein in an American high school classroom.
Diane, sadly is no longer with us, but she was a world renowned storyteller and author. She brought the tale of Tipingee to the U.S. and the world by writing a book “The Magic Orange Tree” (1997) after living in Haiti for some time.
She was also author of the version of the first story I ever told, the Goddess myth of ‘Inanna and her Descent to the Underworld’.
Many years ago I wrote this article about ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. I was holding off publishing it until I had recorded and/or published my version. However I think this article needs to be released from it’s confines (after eight long years) and perhaps it may generate discussion. Jo Henwood of the recently established Australian Fairytale Society, initiated her genius idea of Fairy Tale Rings (read more and follow links at the blog I wrote about this). They are held nationally every two months. Jack and the Beanstalk is the tale being discussed currently and a reading list was sent around
I have to confess: I am a Jack lover. I find him empowering, exciting, magical and delightfully cheeky. However, it hasn’t always been so. Once, like many people, I was suspicious of Jack. He was just a lazy, violent, materialistic, thieving social climber obsessed with phallic symbols, wasn’t he? If so, what kind of a role model is that for a boy or a girl?
For me, coming to love Jack of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, has come through learning more about how to understand the inner language of stories. Just because you don’t understand the indecipherable strings of words your teenager mutters, or just because you don’t understand the techno-babble error messages your computer spits out as your deadline draws near, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no meaning to be gleaned. It’s just that you don’t understand the language.
Embedded in the folktales and myths that have endured through time, are ancient codes. These codes appeal so strongly to deep places within our souls, that even the most modern children are still drawn very powerfully to them. That is, unless they have been taught, either explicitly or implicitly, that folktales are not good stories. Of course, not all folktales or myths are jewels. Not all literature is worth reading either, but it doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss all literature, in the way that some people dismiss all folktales.
However know that you may have to kiss a few toad stories as you journey along the road of folktales. The treasures you seek may at first be difficult to recognize, for they may be hiding under the cultural moss of outmoded prejudices or the cobwebs of old fashioned references and ideas. Then, once you have cleared away the moss and the cobwebs, you may need to decode their golden language if you are to fully appreciate their value. No wonder so many of us adults fall along the wayside. Children don’t have these problems. They can instinctively and unconsciously intuit the metaphors, leaving them to simply enjoy a good story.
Giving a historical context on our attitudes towards traditional stories, Joseph Campbell, a world authority on mythology and folktales said,
‘The “monstrous, irrational and unnatural” motifs of folktale and myth are derived from the reservoirs of dream and vision. On the dream level, such images represent the total state of the individual dreaming psyche…but clarified of personal distortions and profounded – by poets, prophets, visionaries-, they become symbolic of the spiritual norm for Man the Microcosm. They are thus phrases from an image-language, expressive of metaphysical, psychological and sociological truth. And in the primitive, oriental, archaic and medieval societies this vocabulary was pondered and more or less understood. Only in the wake of the Enlightenment has it suddenly lost its meaning and been pronounced insane.’ (1)
Bruno Bettleheim in his classic book, “The Uses of Enchantment”, has this to say of Jack and the Beanstalk:
“Important elements of this fairy story appear in many stories all over the world: the seemingly stupid exchange which provides something of magical power: the miraculous seed from which a tree grows that reaches into heaven; the cannabalistic ogre that is outwitted and robbed; the hen or goose that lays the golden eggs; the musical instrument that talks. But their combination into a story which asserts the desirability of social and sexual self-assertion in the pubertal boy, and the foolishness of a mother who belittles this, is what makes Jack and the Beanstalk such a meaningful fairy tale.” (2)
Once I began thinking in these terms, something else clicked into place. I recognized that Jack was descended from a long line of mythic heroes and heroines, who at great risk to themselves, wrest wisdom, wealth and power from Sky Gods who usually, are extremely reluctant to part with these boons. I have a particular passion for one of these heroines -the ancient Sumerian Goddess of Fertility, Inanna. She stole and brought back to Earth the sacred tablets of wisdom, power and wealth, after tricking her Sky God Father, Enki. She was celebrated by her people for it. The ancient Greeks told of Prometheus who stole fire from Zeus. The Aboriginal Rainbow Bird bravely snatched fire from the mouth of the greedy crocodile, to share it with the people. (3) Maui the trickster God, in Maori legend, annoyed his grandmother Mahuika, the Fire Goddess until she threw fire into the trees, so people could rub sticks together and make fire. But Jack’s story is tailor made for the understanding of a Western child. My son’s Kindergarten teacher, an enthusiastic storyteller herself, calls Jack the Robin Hood of the Sky.
Take another look with Jung or Bettleheim’s eyes and you see that Jack is simply the archetypal young boy, needing to jump over his next developmental hurdle. To grow up, he must relinquish the endless supply of mother’s milk and the dreamy, self-indulgent or ‘lazy’ phase of early childhood. This is represented by selling their beloved cow Milky White. He has to stand up for what he believes in, be brave, assert himself to his mother and take action. He has to take initiative in life and start the journey towards manhood. The phallic beanstalk is an emblem of his arising potency, replacing the previous oral stage.
How now to remove from his story the moss and cobwebs: the outmoded values and references? Since folktales can have a powerful effect on children, this is an important surgery to perform. Yet, if you don’t know what you are doing, a little nip and tuck could turn into an extreme makeover with disastrous results. You must always leave the essential elements of the story intact or in your quest to update the tale, you could render it so politically correct that it is left dull, impotent and banal.
The parts I wanted to update in Jack were the rather unequal relationship between the ogre and his wife; the implication that Jack and his mother keep their treasure all for themselves and the idea that Jack is both lazy and a giant killer. So in my version, the giant’s wife becomes ‘the Giantess’, so that she has an identity of her own: she is not merely somebody’s wife. She doesn’t become a Goddess, she just has a little more oomph. She gently bosses the giant around: “Oh you and yer fee fi fo fummin! Just sit down to yer dinner dear.” She reminds the giant to do the washing up and drying up after dinner, which he meekly complies with. However it is also OK to have a disempowered character in a story. They can act as a warning to children of how NOT to be. They may see something tragic in the character and decide not to be like that, but to be more like the hero or heroine.
To help children make more conscious sense of the tale I give them this introduction:
“The giant is like us on the days when we don’t feel like sharing, when we are greedy and thoughtless. Of course it’s all right not to share sometimes, but the giant NEVER wants to share with ANYONE: not his money, not his golden goose and not his music!
Jack’s mother, is that side of us that is fearful, always looks on the dark side of everuytging that happens and is a bit melodramatic.
Now some people say that Jack is lazy, but I disagree. I think Jack was just happy-go-lucky. [For me that is a better way to describe early childhood.] He’s happy when he’s poor, and later he’s happy when he’s rich, but it isn’t money that makes him happy. Because money can help you be comfortable, but it can’t buy happiness. Jack’s happy because of what is in his heart.”
In my version, when the giant falls off the beanstalk and hits the ground, his great body carves a deep hollow in the Earth, the size of a valley. Then, he disappears in a puff of smoke. This, I explain is because he wasn’t the kind of giant that was meant to live on the Earth, he was meant to stay in the Sky. This underscores for the adults listening, as much as for the children, that Jack hasn’t murdered a mortal man, rather he has slain (in self- defence) an archetype. By slaying such a character, Jack is empowered to integrate into his own psyche the positive aspects of the giant: courage, strength and the ability to hold wealth. Because Jack is a hero, he can use these strengths to do good, rather than evil: so in my version, Jack and his mother share their wealth. They also buy a gypsy wagon and travel the world so that others can share in the soulful music of the golden harp, and whenever people ask how they came by the harp, he tells the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.
The Inuit say that a storyteller creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself. Children are able to imbibe this wisdom very naturally and unconsciously. It is only when we are adult that we want a more conscious and intellectual understanding as well. So please remember, that the inner language of stories is largely Sacred Parents Business. It is not meant to be shared with our children. When the time is right, they will begin to comprehend the hidden meanings and extra dimensions consciously as well as unconsciously.
I hope this article has helped you to see another side to Jack and his Beanstalk. Perhaps you may also be able to see the empowering, exciting, magical and delightfully cheeky side of Jack. I hope that the next time you meet him, rather than shunning him, you’ll carefully remove any moss or cobwebs trailing after him and then invite him to come and play as a welcome guest at your place. But be prepared, as he is sure to bring his many good friends!
(1) The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Pantheon Books, New York, 1944). Commentary by Joseph Campbell, p 861-2.
(2) Bettelheim, Bruno, The Uses of Enchantment (Vintage, New York, 1975), p184.
(3) Storyteller Eric Maddern has written a picture book called The Rainbow Bird, based on the Aboriginal version from Manyallaluk.
This is a guest post by good friend Teeya Blatt, member of ‘The Byron Circle of Tellers’. She wove this exquisite version for our concert at the live performance night ‘ Tintenbar Upfront’.
I’ve heard it said that there exist amongst us tonight a group that is not familiar with the ancient and age-old art of storytelling for adults!
Well, if that be true, I bid you who are new to this, on behalf of Storytelling Circles
everywhere, a most hearty welcome! As I am the saluting storyteller of this propitious event,
it is left to me to introduce you to our roles, that of listeners, and that of tellers, and the stories
themselves as the raison d’etre, the reason we are brought together and the reward of our
being here. Because, unlike listening to a band, or watching t.v., listening to a story requires
a certain light effort, not a heavy burden, but a willingness to focus on the story, a permission
to allow the inner child to fall into wonder, because if you drop out on a part, even a small
part, it just may be the bit that you most need to know for the story to embrace you and
As a storyteller, I can tell you that your attitude and attention will transform me from
my little self to the teller of a story that adjusts itself to both our moods. If you as listener are
not willing, me as teller will fumble, or stumble or fall down flat. Have no doubt – you are
more important than me for the story that wants to be heard.
You may rightly ask yourselves, “What for?” “Why bother?” “What good will it do
The best way to answer those questions is by story. So let me, please, tell you the
ancient story of Scheherazade, Queen of Persia, whose name means “the freer of cities”. Her
story and the stories that she told – for she is one of the greatest storytellers of all time – have come to us as
The Thousand Nights and One Night, also known as The Arabian Nights, from
which collection come well-loved stories of Ali Baba and the 4o Thieves, Sinbad the Sailor
and all his adventures, Aladdin and His Magical Lamp. But these are a small number
compared to all the rest, and this collection was written down in the 14th century, but the
original, which was Persian, is said to have been told orally from about the time of 900 A.D.
We have here a collection of stories that have lasted so long, centuries, precisely because they
touch something essential in the human heart and human imagination. So now, let me answer
the question, ‘what can stories do for me?’ Let me tell you her story, the story of
It is recorded in the chronicles of the things that have been done of time past that
there lived once, in bygone ages and times, a most powerful king, who
reigned of the Islands of India and China. He had two sons, and when he died, he set them
up each in their own dominions, the elder, who’s name, Shehriyar, means ‘king’ or ‘sultan’,
was given the larger part of the kingdom, of course. Kings Shehriyar and his younger
brother, Shahzeman ruled justly over their respective subject, and enjoyed the utmost
prosperity and happiness, for a space of time.
There are many stories about the two brothers which I may tell you another time, but
for now, suffice it to say that a rumour came to the ear of the Sultan Shehriyar, a terrible
rumour that involved his most beloved and wondrously beautiful wife.
He didn’t want to believe it was true, so King Shehriyar arranged to see for himself,
and rather than going to court to attend to his kingdom, he hid one day behind a latticed
window in his bedroom, and looked onto the garden outside. Soon, the gate to the courtyard
opened, and there entered 20 damsels and 20 slaves and among them his own wife, the
Queen. They all came to sit by the fountain, and the girls and the slaves proceeded to disrobe and sat down together. Then the Queen called out, “O Messoud!” and there came to her a
most beautiful black slave, who embraced her and she him, and then they ceased not from
kissing and clipping and clicketing and carousing until the day began to wane.
Even when the courtyard had emptied, in the dusk of twilight, Shehriyar was still at
his window, paralysed and enraged. What he had seen tore away at all that was soft in him.
His heart caved in on itself, became a hard know in the cavity of his chest, and he was filled
instead with a hot lust for vengeance.
He called for his Vizier and had him go to the Queen and behead her and her lover.
The Vizier, of course, asked no questions, simply went to do his masters bidding.
The King meanwhile, went to the harem, and he unsheathed his own sword and in the
rage of his indignation, he slew them all – all the damsels who had caroused alongside his
That very night, King Shehriyar bid his vizier, “Bring me a maiden suitable to marry!”
And the King went into the maiden, and in the morning he bid his vizier, “Take her away and
behead her!” which the vizier duly did.
This he did again the next night, and the next, and the next.
And the vizier was sore bereft but kept this well hidden, lest it be his head that the
king called for.
The King, the Sultan, ceased not to do thus for three year, till the land was stripped of
maidens, and all the women and mothers and fathers wept and cried out against the king,
cursing; and those that had daughters left fled with them, till at last there remained one day
not a single girl in the city apt for marriage.
And on that day, the king bid his vizier bring a suitable maiden, the vizier nodded his
head, but was very anxious, as there were no marriageable girls left in all the land. Now it so happened that the vizier had two daughters, who he had managed to keep
safe during these troubled years. The elder, Scheherazade, was of great wit, and had read all
the stories of the kingdom, and the neighbouring kingdoms. She knew the histories of kings
past and present, she had memorized the poetry and lore of her land and of lands far off, and
when she saw her father’s troubled demeanour, although she guessed at its reason, she asked
him what was troubling him.
The vizier did not respond, for he did not want to involved his beloved daughter int he
goings on at court, but she pressed him until he told her, and she responded, “Be anxious no
longer, my father, and offer me this night for marriage to the king!” Her father refused and
Scheherazade argued, and the vizier refused, but Scheherazade was adamant, and in the end
he relented, and Scheherazade began preparations for her marriage that night.
Besides all the things that women do to prepare for their wedding night, Scheherazade
took aside her younger sister, Dunyazade, and bid her thus, “My sister, after the king has
come into me and had his fill, and while we are lying in his bed, I bid you to say to me thus,
‘my sister, as we are awake, will you not tell one of your pleasant stories to while away the
watch?’ ” and Dunyazade promised to do just that.
And so came the night, and after the king went into her and had his fill, and while
they were lying in his bed, Dunyazade asked, “My sister, as we are awake, will you not tell
one of your pleasant stories to while away the watch?” and Scheherazade replied, “With all
my heart, if the king give me leave.” And as he was far from sleep, the King said, “Say on.”
And Scheherazade started her stories on the first night.
Here is where it is revealed to us that Scheherezade was a priestess of the psyche
secure in her craft, in her art. That she gave not the best of her tales the opening night, just
yet enough to pique the invalid king’s interest, is one of the subtleties of her craft. She told
her tale, and when Scheherazade saw that the night was becoming light, she stopped off her telling on the edge of a knife, and Dunyazade, her sister exclaimed, “My sister, that was a
most wondrous tale,” and Scheherazade answered, “It is nothing to how the tale ends, and I
will tell you more tomorrow night if the King let me live.” And the King, who wanted to
know the end of the story, said, “Let it be so.”
And on the second night, when the King Shehriyar had gone into her, and had his fill,
and they were lying in his bed, Dunyazade said, “My sister, as we are awake, will you not
complete the story you started last night, to while away the watch?” and Scheherazade
replied, “With all my heart, if the august king give me leave.” And as he was far from sleep,
the King said, “Say on.” And Scheherazade continued her story.
And Scheherazade told until she espied the lightening of the sky and stopped her story
at the edge of a knife, and promised to continue the following night, if the King allowed her
to live. And the King, who was most interested and intrigued, agreed, saying, “Let it be so.”
This happened again on the third night, and the fourth and continued to happen for a
thousand nights and one night. Scheherazade told magical tales, mystical, adventurous. She
told tales of love, burlesque and erotica, she included historical tales, tales of brutality and
bliss, and interspersed to add depth, she even told poems.
The stories included genies and jinns, ghouls, sorcerers, magicians, legendary places,
and sometimes, a character in Scheherazade’s tale told other characters a story of his own,
and that story may have another one told within it, stories within stories within stories,
multilayered, rich and textured.
And in Scheherezade’s tales was depicted the whole range of human experience, from
the comical to the tragic,, the wondrous to mundane, the secular to mystical. In her telling,
nothing was rejected as common or unclean, all classes of people were represented; slave and
king, and courtier and countryman, pietist and free-thinker, ignorant and learned, wise and foolish, moralist and debauchee. In a word – Humanity – wise, obscene, and greater than
Her narrative was sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous, but never a sentimental
reading of the human heart, and slowly, slowly was transferred to King Shehriyar’s morbid
intellect little by little (nevermore at a time than a self-righteous tyrant could assimilate), the
wondrousness of the kaleidoscope of life, until in the end, there was left nothing in the world
for him to resist or not to love. And within the stories, he saw his own story in perspective.
The stories, which was Life talking to him, wound its way underneath his self-righteous
indignation and released his heart from its stone prison.
Scheherazade, a master of her art, presented the Universe of story, or rather the
Universe as story. I have heard tell from the wise old storytellers that it is not humans who
tell stories, no no, it is us who are the characters in a large story, it is the story that tells us.
Scheherazade told her tales for one thousand nights and one night, and when she came
to the end of her stories, she had her three sons that she had in the meantime born to the king
brought to the room, and said to him, “My most august king, will you take away the mother
from these your three sons? I beg of you to spare my life.” And the King, whose heart had
been healed, had fallen in love with his wife, her wit and strategy, and he had already long
thought that he would not put her to death.
Thus we see that stories in One Thousand Night and One Night, brought about a death
- of the tyrant, and refreshment as man.
And now, I bid you all a wonderful life of stories and songs.
Note from Teeya: I have borrowed much from Joseph Campbell’s (1952) editing of the Thousand Nights and One
Night in The Viking Press version of this collection, The Portable Arabian Nights.
Teeya Blatt is co-host of the Heart of the Story on 99.9 BAY FM Radio with Annie Bryant.
Teeya is also creator and founder of “From Heroes Into Men: A Boy to Manhood Program for Communities”.
She has a website here.
Scheherazade was the extremely heroic, intelligent and learned storyteller of the frame story of ‘1001 Arabian Nights’. Here is my very brief summary of the story. When I tell it is very different and longer but I haven’t yet written that down as it is still evolving. For a long and eloquent version I recommend Teeya Blatt’s version in the guest post that was added after this one.
After discovering his Queen cheating on him, King Sharyr murdered his wife and her lover. He then told himself the bitter story that all women were evil and deceitful, and so justified his own barbarous response. He commanded his Vizier to bring him a new wife each night, but would have the poor young woman beheaded the following morning.
The Vizier’s had two daughters. The eldest was Scheherazade and she was very learned and well read. She bravely volunteered to marry the King, despite her father begging her not to. Each night the new Queen spun for her husband a tale so compelling and sumptuous, that he would abstain from ordering her execution so that he could hear another tale the following evening. At the end of the 1001 nights, or three years, her story magic had healed the King’s sick story and thus healed his soul. Thus not only did Scheherazade redeem the King, but the Kingdom also! In effect, she healed the King’s sick and hateful story about women and taught him to be a more compassionate, wise and reasonable person.
King Sharyr’s monstrous greed for consuming and senselessly discarding virginal women seems a fitting analogy for the way the developed world (and increasingly the developing world) are treating Gaia and her resources. The frame story also speaks to the need to honour feminine divine wisdom, for a much needed change of paradigm.
Today I found a new edition of the tales written by Hanan Al-Shaykh, an acclaimed Lebanese author. I am off to bed to read them right NOW!!
(To read my friend Teeya’s fantastic rendition of the tale go to my next blog post.)
(PS. I never did get time to read that book before giving it to Teeya for her birthday, but I plan to buy my own eventually. Here is a review and an interview with the author by Joe Fassler. )
Don’t you love it when you are put in a situation that streeeetches your experience and knowledge, so that you learn new things and develop new skills? This year, Book Week did just that for me! I had been enjoying rave reviews and responses… until I went to Milperra High, a school for newly arrived refugee teenagers. Half way through the first show, I lost my audience. This has not happened to me in a looong time and as far as I can remember not as badly as it happened that day, since I started 21 years ago. As I had a second show to do there, I had to quickly swallow my dented pride, and think fast! With the help of the resident teacher librarian, we brainstormed a number of solutions and over lunch, I concocted a new set list. The second show went so well that it was a peak experience!! Hallelujah!
None of the other Book Week shows this year were quite that dramatic, but I did have quite a few ‘firsts’ as a storyteller and consequently learned a great deal! More on that next post. (Thanks to my lovely agent Helen Bain at Speaker’s Ink for all those great bookings!) I also got to meet lots of talented, fun muso’s, authors and illustrators when we got booked in the same schools.
Getting back to my empowering flop, here is what I learned at Milperra. After an intense discussion with the teacher librarian, I realised I had misunderstood her description of their language competence and therefore I had overestimated the language skills of the students. Also she told me that you cannot tell these students any story that involves a boat- even a happy story. I felt awful when I reflected that I had just told and sung them the story of my great grandmother Emily Jane and her difficult journey to Australia in 1884. (This would have been good to know BEFORE I started!) So here are the things that made the second show go so well.
Firstly I got the teacher librarian to give a strong introduction, in which she set VERY clear boundaries, regarding behaviour and respect. She raved about my qualifications, including the fact that I taught at a University, because that is revered in their cultures. Then I explained that I had never listened to a story in a language that wasn’t my first one. In fact, I confessed, I didn’t even know a second language beyond counting to ten in German, but that I sometimes speak quickly when I get excited. So I asked them to make a signal if I was speaking too fast. I demonstrated my ‘go slow’ signal. One of the young men nodded and twice during the show he very respectfully gave me the signal, to which I happily responded and apologised. For me, this created a lovely sense of connection and community. Next, I borrowed an idea from my good friend Teeya Blatt, where I explained that as a storyteller, I am quite vulnerable to my audience. If they wanted to get the most from the session I explained, they need to go with me open heartedly. If they were to sit with crossed arms and closed hearts, I would likely get swept away in that rip, no matter how much experience and skill I may have and no matter how rich my tales were. However if they allowed me to, I could take them on a great story ride all the way to the shore. This was a calculated risk. It could have backfired, but luckily they appreciated this and their energy shifted. Nevertheless, as soon I began to introduce the first story, two young men in the front started talking over me. In my calmest, high school teacher voice, I firmly directed them to move from the front to the back row. Perhaps because strong boundaries had been set, they were fine with that.
I began with an Egyptian story I learned from my friend and colleague Donna Jacobs Sife, called ‘The Black Prince’. (Laura Simms also tell it, but here is a video of UK teller Abbie Palache telling it). The hero of this poignant and tragic tale is black and eventually, very powerful. As the story unfolded, the entire audience, including the young men I had sent up the back, became deeply engrossed. But when I described the majestic black prince, the young man who had been the cheekiest, looked palpably delighted. He remained engaged and respectful for the whole hour, enthusiastically participating when appropriate.
Next I told the Blue Coat, a Jewish folktale involving a baby boy who grows up through the story. I usually tell to preschoolers and lower primary students, and though it does work for older age groups, I don’t usually tell it to older audiences. The teacher librarian persuaded me to tell it even with the felt board! This felt surreal to me, and I expected an uprising, as some of the male students were 17-18 years old with deep voices and whiskers! But they LOVED it!!! The themes of loss, community and healing were perfect and a simple circle story that repeats is much easier to grasp when you are struggling with the language.
Lastly I told Shingebiss which is set in the freezing lands of northern Canada. I learned it from my storytelling colleague in the US, Fran Stallings. This was the perfect ending: a story of resilience and triumph over adversity, which had no boats or oceans! The arctic imagery of this story is sufficiently distinct from the settings in which these young people might have encountered any real life horrors. Shingebiss has a wonderful refrain (which you can hear here). The heroine sings to keep herself to keep strong enough to withstand the ferocity of ‘Old Man North Wind’.
“North Wind, North Wind fierce of feature, you are still my fellow creature.
Blow your worst you can’t scare me.
I’m not afraid and so I’m free.’
Some students sang along quietly which I imagined was because they felt it childish to sing along as many upper primary Australian students get shy about joining in the refrain (sadly). But when I got to the end they clapped and the bot I had sent to the back row, called out “Sing it again!” Then I realised that because I was preoccupied with completing the story before the bell rang for 3pm, I hadn’t taught them the words first. I did that and they sang again with me, this time energetically and sonorously. As we got to the last line, the bell rang and the students spontaneously jumped out their chairs, punched the air triumphantly and sang “And so I’m FREE!” and then with claps and smiles and ‘Thanks Miss’ they filed out the door! See what I mean? A peak experience! What an honour!
‘Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.’ –Barry Lopez (1990, p. 49)
Since humans learned to speak, we have told stories: stories to explain why the world is as it is, stories to entertain, stories to uplift, to reassure and to teach. We have told them in words, gestures, dance, music and art. While oral storytelling is an ancient art, it’s modern revival began in the seventies and now flourishes worldwide.
An oral storyteller tells a memorised story to a listener or listeners. There is no ‘fourth wall’ or invisible barrier between audience and teller. An old Scottish Traveller Proverb describes it this way: ‘The story is told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart.’
Storytelling is an intimate, reciprocal experience. As the tale unfolds, the story takes on a life of it’s own: a co-creation between teller and audience. This gives storytelling an enormous potential to heal, to build community and to stimulate the imagination. It draws on and cultivates the listeners ability to visualise, concentrate and follow story conventions.
While the level of concentration required to follow a story is very high, the magic of stories with a folktale structure is such, that modern children can still sink deeply and effortlessly into them. Even very exciting stories can generate a feeling of relaxation, because they create such an intensity of focus or ‘entrainment’.
Storytelling is a powerful pedagogical tool. Research has shown that told stories ‘enhance recall, retention, application of concepts into new situations, understanding and learner enthusiasm for the subject matter.’ Coles (1989). Oral storytelling is also an elegant way to engage multiple intelligences and works harmoniously with almost every other art form: music, song, dance and art.
Quality stories, told sensitively, can nourish the soul while fostering imagination, emotional resilience, moral values and critical thinking.
Storytelling is the perfect antidote to our overly technological and impersonal age, where we can be overwhelmed with ‘soundbytes’. Poet David Whtye, in his poem: “Loaves and Fishes” put it this way
This is not the age of information. This is not the age of information. Forget the news, and the radio, and the blurred screen. This is the time of loaves and fishes. People are hungry and one good word is bread for a thousand.
For a great example of the powerful way stories can be used to heal and empower watch this trailer for a coming film called “Finding the Gold Within’ at https://vimeo.com/84188653
On September 7, I again had the pleasure of telling stories at the at the Mullumbimby Community Gardens. Last year I told stories with help from musician Greg Sheehan and my daughter Layla. This year, I was joined by my friends, Teeya Blatt and Jacquelina Wills who are fellow members of the Byron Circle of Tellers.
We told in front of this exquisite mandala created by Jacquelina, who was one of the original co-founders of the Community Gardens! Teeya told an original story called ‘Little Pink Feet’ which supports the Boys Blessing Ceremony in her boy-to-manhood program, ‘From Heroes Into Men’, and also retold Evette Weyers ‘Eve’. Teeya is also co-host of ‘The Heart of the Story’ on Bay FM radio, and took some of these photos.
Later, in honour of the snake in the mandala I told the story of ‘The Dreams and the Snake’ which was told to me by Lynne Preston, another Byron Circle of Tellers member. (Thanks Lynne!)
There were loads of fascinating workshops on gardening and sustainability, performances and keynotes from Professor Ian Lowe (Australian Conservation Foundation), Clive Hamilton (Australia Institute), Costa Georgiardis (ABC’s Gardening Australia), Behrokh Koshnevis, (Bio Char 3D printing) plus a Q&A forum exploring ‘How to engage community in sustainability’.
What I found life changing, was hearing Clive Hamilton say that with respect to climate change, he is terrified. When I think about it clearly, I am too, but mostly I try not to think that hard about it. I just try to do as much as I can. But hearing him say so frankly, that impacted me deeply. Globally, we are already experiencing the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Developing countries are bearing the brunt much more than us. Hearing Clive made me re-evaluate all my plans for the next few years, and focus on doing the most I can with the skills I have hasten the shift to a sustainable economy and way of life.
After my colleague Jackie Kerin (Victoria) inspired me at the National Storytelling Conference to learn the Japanese art of kamishibai storytelling, I just ordered one! Here is a blogpost she wrote about her kamishibai journey.
Learn about the art of kamishibai storytelling and possibilities in education here.
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