Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starter ~ The Stolen Child

Peppers is in Fishguard, the Pembrokeshire town of my birth and the first 14 years of my life. It’s also the venue for Summer Enchantment, the evening of songs and stories which Paul and I will be performing next Wednesday, August 1st, with David Pepper at the piano.

Paul will be singing the songs. I’m planning to tell two main stories plus a couple of short ones. One of the big ones is the story I know as The Stolen Child. It’s a Scottish story which I’ve relocated to the Pembrokeshire coast. If you might possibly be there on August 1st, perhaps you should stop reading now. On the other hand, does it matter if, when you start hearing a story, you realise you already know it? I don’t think so.

I think a story grows when you know it, especially for the teller. Otherwise why do I think through a story again and again, sometimes in a skeletal way, sometimes dwelling on particular aspects? A good story not only allows return but encourages it. I need to feel sure of the shape of a tale and The Stolen Child begins with the child being taken away (by who else but the fairies?). And it ends, of course, with the return of the child. The grief of the young mother when the theft is discovered is balanced by the joy when her child is regained. It’s a very strong structure.

Fascinating elements:

Many things fascinate me about what comes in between. One is that the young mother, having found her child gone, is directed to go and see the gypsies, especially one who is old and wise. Now when I was a child, I used to hear about a Gypsy Rose Lee who was to be found on Begelly Common. An older friend of mine had actually met her. I could see her in my mind’s eye. So in the story, I feel I know her when I get to the part where she sits and ponders – where is the stolen child?  – and then comes out of her tent, builds up her fire and throws sweet-smelling herbs upon it.

‘The fairies have got it,’ she says. Of course. But what grips me is what she then declares the young mother must now do. Briefly, she must make a cloak the like of which has only ever before been seen in legend, and she must make a harp whose strings when plucked would woo the heart of whoever heard it to the point where they must have that harp for themselves.

So the young woman goes away to think how to make those things. In the original Scottish story, she goes down to the sea. So that’s another reason for my relocation of the tale to Pembrokeshire. Don’t I know those Pembrokeshire beaches? Can I not see the small feathers the young woman scours the beach to collect, sufficient of them to make the softest, loveliest cloak that can exist outside of legend? And can’t I imagine the bones she has to find and collect to make the frame for her harp? What then has to win the heart of whoever hears the story is how the young woman strings the harp she has made with golden hairs that she plucks from her own head.

So human:

Equipped with cloak and harp, it’s back to Begelly Common. The old gypsy woman has told the young woman how the fairies gather there on Midsummer Eve. She must use the cloak and the harp to win her way in to the gathering and to regain her child. This she does. And I admire the way she does it. It’s very human, very recognisable. She realises she must make use of the power of envy and desire that all of us will have experienced at some time or another. When someone wants what you have got? When you want something they have got? Here it’s a fairy woman who is arriving late for the fairy gathering. When she catches sight of the cloak of white feathers, which of course the young woman flourishes in front of her in such a way as to show it off, the fairy woman cannot go on without it. She’s got to have it. The price is allowing the young woman, no fairy, into the fairy circle.

After that, it’s all quite easy except this is the part that must win the heart in the same way that the fairy king’s heart is won when the young woman starts plucking the golden strings of her harp in the marquee where the fairies have gathered.  The music cannot be resisted – especially not, I suppose, by anyone Welsh and certainly not by me. Only the other day, Paul and I went to hear the extraordinary Welsh harpist Catrin Finch playing with kora-player Seckou Keita. How magical it was.

So the fairy king can do nothing else but give up the child in return for the harp. All is gladness. And now I have to round off that gladness by having the young mother return to her home village with her baby and her story of how she was able to get him back. Maybe I even have to add to the gladness by making the child’s father reappear, happily returning alive from the wars.

Looking forward:

That’s it. I look forward to being back home in Pembrokeshire this weekend and I really look forward to telling The Stolen Child along with another of my most loved stories, Peach Blossom Forest. And if you’re anywhere near Fishguard on August 1st, please do come along. The evening starts at 6.30, supper is available after the concert and you can reserve a place by phone: 01348 874540.

PS:  My top photo is one of those lovely views the young woman in The Stolen Child might have seen, walking to her home village with her child. The bottom picture speaks for itself. It’s the flyer for August 1st.

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