Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Archive for the ‘Myth and Legend’ Category

Storytelling Starters ~ Making peace

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

Two linked stories form my blog this week. One concerns the ancient Welsh cycle of stories, the Mabinogi. The second was reported in the Guardian newspaper on 25th November. The theme of both is the redeeming of lives from the terrible destructions wrought by the human need to take revenge. The link is provided by a place in Pembrokeshire, my home county, which is commonly known as Narberth today. It’s Arberth in Welsh and in the Mabinogi. And the reason the link has come about is because of a very good book which I’d like to tell you about as an introduction.

Introduction:

The other day I was in the London Library checking the New Books shelves when, among the larger tomes, I spotted a slim, red-covered book with The Mabinogi on the spine. ‘What can this be?’ I wondered. ‘Too slim to be the stories or a commentary on them!’ Well, my goodness, the book turned out to be a fantastic new version of the Mabinogi in poetry written by a poet called Matthew Francis and recently published by Faber & Faber.

Concise, rugged, colourful, sharp: Matthew Francis’ poem makes a vivid new thing of that magical cycle of stories. Wholly written in the present tense and focusing on key moments and scenes, it gives the mind and imagination of the reader an entirely fresh perspective that at the same time pays great service to the marvellous old tales. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Secret places

Saturday, October 7th, 2017

Secret places have a strong attraction for many of us. It would be hard to say why. Whatever words are used to explain it, there’s always something that remains inexplicable, mysterious beyond any kind of explanation.

My story this week is about such a place. It’s a fable from China told or retold by T-ao Ch’ien. I’ve loved the story for a very long time and in fact have included it in this blog twice before in 2013 and 2015. But I’ve not previously included a haunting poem that relates to the story. I saw the poem again this week while looking for something else in one of my storytelling notebooks. It felt like re-meeting a very old friend. Written by a poet called Wang Wei who lived from A.D. 699 – 761, it captures both the beauty of the story and, for me, the feeling behind it.

The story:

A fisherman one day was rowing upriver and became so absorbed by the flow of the water that he rowed for a very long time, looking up only when he saw beautiful reflections in the water in the shapes and colours of flowers. When he looked up he saw he was in the middle of a peach blossom forest. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Beware the storyteller

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

P1000220This week in Wales, we’ve had visitors, two friends from New Zealand. Showing them the delights of North Pembrokeshire, I’ve felt very conscious of the myriad  stories that come to my mind – stories from growing up here and from many years since, stories from my father who loved retelling the local legends, stories from the Sloop Inn in Porthgain where storytelling at the locals’ table is as important as the ale (-well, just about). 

Memory Walks:

Last week I talked about Memory Walks. What I didn’t say then is that they’re something Paul and I quite often do after a walk we’ve taken. Sometimes we make a written note of our respective memories, sometimes we just say them to each other. Over time, the doing of this is a wonderful way to increase the noticing that makes walks so worthwhile. This week, one thing we’ve especially appreciated is the stunning fulsomeness of the foxgloves, standing upright like sentinels on all the local hedges. Another was seeing Storm, the dog who regularly makes his own way through the woods to our local beach. A few times lately, we haven’t seen him (he’s getting old). This time, we were so happy to see him again, the dog that befriends all and sundry to the extent that he wears a medallion which says something like, ‘I am not lost. Do not take me home with you.’ (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Old, Bold, Gutsy and Wise

Saturday, May 6th, 2017

Inuit womanI don’t know much about Alaska. One thing I do know, however, is an extraordinary story about two old women who were abandoned by their people in the ice and snow of a very hard winter. The story tells how these two women survived and the enormous wisdom they showed when their people, filled with shame at what they’d done, eventually searched them out to find that they were still alive. 

Two Old Women has been retold in print by Velma Wallis, a woman who’d heard it told many times as a child. Is it a legend or is it true? In a way, the question is irrelevant. I think the story has a striking relevance for us today. It insists that skills that have been learned in the past and the experience that is gained over a life-time can be of life-saving value, reviving memory,  self-respect and determination.

Old, Bold, Gutsy and Wise:

As guest storyteller for the evening, I’ll be telling this story this coming Wednesday at Fishguard Storytelling/Straeon Gwaun, the monthly story club organised by Deborah Winter at Pepper’s in West Street in Fishguard, North Pembrokeshire. The only other time I’ve told it was years ago at a Secondary School in Chelmsford where one of the main responses of my audience was astonishment at hearing of a world and a time where there were no computers and no mobile phones and where the two old women, when abandoned, had no contact with anyone at all other than each other. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ A story in waiting

Saturday, February 25th, 2017

Garden daffsThis week the Book Group I belong to met to discuss The Vanishing Man, the new book by the art critic Laura Cumming. The book tells an extraordinary double story. On the one hand, it’s the story of a man who thought he had acquired a lost painting of the future Charles I by the Spanish painter, Velazquez. On the other, it’s the story of the painter and the paintings he made. I was especially interested by a section of the book that made me think about what happens to stories.

Laura Cumming lists all the possible things that can happen to paintings which in turn can make life difficult when you’re trying to trace one of them. Paintings can get destroyed by fire. They can fade, they can be painted over. They can repose, forgotten, in some dusty dark attic or be squirrelled away by a possessive collector who does not want the world to know about them. So many millions of paintings, so many possible problems, there’s also the fact that, until comparatively recently, individual paintings did not necessarily have fixed titles. One painting of the future Charles I could get mixed up with another.

What happens to stories is equally variable, equally fascinating. Certainly they can get lost. I remember a story collector who appeared in my TV series, By Word of Mouth, back in 1990. This particular collector used to go over to Ireland each year to work with an old man who knew many, many stories. One year, this old Irishman said to him, ‘I’ve still got lots of stories you haven’t heard. So if I’m no longer here when you come next year, come over to the graveyard and I’ll tell them up to you.’

Countless stories have come into being in the past. Countless more are arising right now. And if they’re emerging by word of mouth rather than in print, they won’t have titles by which to fix their place in the world. It’s an essential part of the nature of stories that they change, get mixed up, merge with another. Besides, stories are stories. Reaching out like the Ancient Mariner, they can get a grip on the listener that far outweighs questions as to where they came from or whether they are true. (more…)

Storytelling Starters – Where Words Can Take You

Saturday, February 4th, 2017

Walking across Green Park a few days ago, a friend and I were bemoaning how dusk comes too early at this time of the year. Then we cheered up by reminding ourselves that, by now, the days are already drawing out.

CockerelA journey of words:

Cam ceiliog is the phrase that was always used by the mother of my Welsh friend, Beryl. No sooner had the shortest day gone by than she’d be reminding us how, from now on, the days would be drawing out. Cam ceiliog is Welsh for the cockerel’s step, the general inference being that, while the days get longer only bit by bit, we can all be certain that the steps do happen.

On our walk through Green Park, the Welsh phrase caused some discussion. Could there be any connection with the Scottish word, capercaillie which so brilliantly summons up the idea of stepping? Next day – for the friend in question was the renowned translator, Margaret Jull Costa – I got an email from her elucidating this question. Any connection between ceiliog and capercaillie? ‘No,’ she said, detailing the relevant etymologies, ‘no connection at all.’

However, word-expert and word-forager as my friend is, I received another email from her a day or two later. This one referred to the fact that, on our walk,  I’d happened to say that ceiliog, the Welsh word for cockerel, reminded me of Kellogg’s, the company that makes Cornflakes and so many other breakfast cereals.

Ah now! Margaret had pursued this link and was now writing to tell me it wasn’t just me that had seen a connection between that Welsh word for cockerel and Kellogg’s. Someone else had done exactly the same quite a few years ago: none other than the world-famous harpist, Nansi Richards, who died back in 1979. Evidently, during a harp-playing tour in the United States, Nansi Richards had at one point visited the home of Will Kellogg who, at the time, had been looking for a marketing emblem for his company.

And what had he finally chosen? Why, a cockerel. And why did he choose it? Well, according to the story, because Nansi Richards had told him how his surname, Kellogg, reminded her of the Welsh word, ceiliog. So that’s how the cockerel became the Kelloggs emblem and although Wikipedia says the story may be apocryphal, I like it – and even more so  because that same Wikipedia entry led me to another intriguing association. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ The power of perfume

Saturday, November 12th, 2016

P1080432This week on an afternoon walk, I passed the two bushes in my photos. The first is lavender, the second I’m not sure of. But from each, a beautiful perfume came out. Each made me think. ‘If only I could somehow encode that perfume and send it out on my blog this week.’ Might that ever be possible? Perhaps – but I’m sure it wouldn’t be as good as the real thing.

Then I started to wonder. ‘Do I know any stories where perfume is important?’ The question made a good accompaniment to my walk as it started to rain.

Perfume from India:

First I thought about the story of Ganesh, the Hindu god. When his mother Parvati made him, her husband Shiva was away and she was lying in her bath, scraping off the soaps and creams she’d  applied to her body. From the little ball she rolled them into, she began to mould a little boy. The little boy quickly became alive and immediately began to grow. By the time his father returned, the boy was guarding the door of the bath-house. Of course, his father did not know who he was and, angry at seeing an intruder claiming to be Parvati’s protector, he summarily cut off the boy’s head.

And the rest – how the boy then gained his elephant head and became the much-honoured Ganesh –  is, according to your taste, a matter of religion, myth or story. There’s nothing specifically about perfume in it. But I reckon that, as Ganesh is the god that helps people with their problems, he is undoubtedly perfumed with kindness. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Red

Saturday, October 15th, 2016

P1080350Red has been in my thoughts all week. It’s one of the colours of Autumn and, in the UK, Autumn is certainly here. There are lots of red berries in our local park  (a sign, some say, of a hard winter to come). And in our garden, the Sumach tree has turned the most stunning red it’s ever been.

So  red has been in my thoughts all week which is why the stories my blog offers this week are, first, a gorgeous little Irish story that was collected by Thomas Crofton Croker and, second, a tiny part from the  very first page of the very first story in the great medieval cycle of Welsh tales known as the Mabinogion. The fact that red figures in both is no surprise. Red is a colour traditionally associated with the supernatural in both Welsh and Irish literature.

Red socks: a tale from Ireland

Tom was on his way home from the fields when he saw a leprechaun in a hedge. As he watched, he saw the tiny creature reach down a drink of beer from a pitcher and then return to putting a heel-piece on a tiny shoe just the right size for his foot. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Tree-thoughts

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

15Tree barkSit under a tree awhile and listen and I bet you’ll hear it speaking to you in the rustle of its leaves and branches. OK, it’s not speaking in any tongue of  humankind. But in its own way, it’s speaking, perhaps of the wind or the seasons, perhaps of its place in the landscape, rural or urban, perhaps of the scenes it has witnessed over the length of the time it has been there. Walk past a long line of trees, it’s the same, though now you’re listening to what I hear as the trees’ conversations  with each other. Each time you go past, you can tune in. Their talk will be there – except, of course, when the trees are gone.

Ariel’s story in The Tempest:

This week, two experiences made me think about the way we humanise trees – or perhaps I should say the way they humanise us. One occurred in a fabulous performance of Shakespeare’s late play, The Tempest, at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse at the Globe Theatre. Pippa Nixon was superb as Ariel, making her feel like pure spirit brought into human form. When Prospero, the magician and manipulator who conjures all the events of the play into reality as if from thin air, reminded her of the plight she’d been in when he first came to the island, it created a horrifyingly poignant image that made immediate sense of her demand that he now set her free from having to serve him and do his bidding. When first on the island, Prospero told Ariel, he’d found her imprisoned in a tree. The evil witch Sycorax had trapped her in it, a cloven pine, and because the witch subsequently died, Ariel had had to remain trapped there and groaning for a whole dozen years before Prospero  released her and made her into his servant. (more…)

Storytelling Starters ~ Life as a dream

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

A few days ago, completely unexpectedly, I bumped into my friend the photographer Francesco Guidicini. Francesco used to lodge with us once and he was a most brilliant person to have in the house. He cooked the best risottos and pasta dishes ever, he loves conversation and he’s interested in stories. One day, he told me this tale when I’d been asking him about his home city, Bologna.

Life as a Dream:

P1080091Francesco’s story began with him describing how, often in Autumn when he was a student in Bologna, he’d be sitting having coffee with friends in one of the old squares in the University area when mists would start swirling into the square, creating a strange, romantic atmosphere. One Autumn of many such mists, Francesco and his friends became aware of a dramatic figure who’d sometimes walk by as they talked. A lonely wraith of a person, this figure was always dressed in the same tailed coat, white tie and black trousers. His face was pale, his body slender, and he invariably wore a top hat and white gloves like a character from the circus or out of the films.

Sometimes Francesco and his friends would see this man several times in a week. Other times, a week or more would go by and they’d wonder if he’d gone away from the city. Then one day late in the afternoon, one of the friends was at home in his digs not far from the city centre when he became aware of someone walking into his hallway from the street. When he looked up from the book he was reading, it was to see the strange apparition of the white-gloved, tail-coated man standing in front of him in his room. The man seemed restless and very nervous. ‘I beg of you to help me,’ he said. ‘You see, I am not as you see me. I’m not the person you think that I am and you can have no notion of the distress I suffer. It has weighed on me far too long. Now I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I have to take action. That’s why I have to tell you about it.’ (more…)