Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Big Ears

Sea tray and handThe Rajah with Enormous Ears is, deservedly, an extremely well-known story. One thing that intrigues me about it is the different versions that exist in other cultures. Did it travel to those places from India? Or did other peoples in other lands come up with the same idea?

In ancient Greece:

Perhaps the oldest version of the Enormous Ears theme occurs as part of the story of King Midas from ancient Greece. Here, Midas is punished with a pair of ass’s ears when he disagrees with the verdict in a famous musical contest. For a long time, he manages to conceal these big ears under a Phrygian cap. But his barber who is the only person aware of the secret cannot bear keeping it to himself. So the barber digs a hole in the river bank and whispers the secret into the hole. ‘King Midas has ass’s ears.’ Then the barber fills up the hole not knowing that, soon, a reed will sprout from the hole and whisper the king’s secret to all who pass by. When Midas learns that his disgrace has become public, he condemns the barber to death, drinks bull’s blood and dies a miserable death.

In Wales:

The Welsh version of the story has a happier end. Here, the barber tells the secret not to a hole but to reeds by the river. Then the reeds are cut by the king’s musicians in order to make musical pipes for themselves. When these pipes are played, they reveal the secret. Fortunately, the revelation makes the king who has the name of March ap Meirchion burst out in laughter. For now that everyone knows his secret, he no longer needs to keep his ears covered.

In Ireland:

Labra the Mariner is the name of the king in the Irish story.  He is in the habit of putting to death every barber who cuts his hair. One day, however, a poor widow begs for the life of her son who has been appointed the king’s next barber. The king agrees as long as her son never reveals his secret. Alas, this proves impossible. The widow’s son feels he has to tell someone and goes to see a Druid to find out what he should do. The Druid advises him to tell the secret to the first willow tree he passes on his way home. So that’s what he does. But not long afterwards, a harper called Craftiny cuts down that willow tree to make a new harp. Then he takes his harp to the palace to play for the king and, of course, its music reveals the king’s secret. The consequence of this  revelation is here entirely good. The king decides that never again will anyone be put to death when he has to have a hair-cut.

Fascinating, isn’t it? Truly, it’s a moral tale. Wherever people are, they adapt the stories they tell to suit the circumstances of their own land and culture. What I especially love about the Hindi version is the variety of instruments that let out the Rajah’s secret. So here’s that Hindi version as I’ve been used to tell it.

In India: 

p1020161There was once a rajah who had a terrible secret: he had enormous ears. To cover his ears, he wore a cap. And so did everyone else in his kingdom. They wore caps to be like him. He wore caps to cover his ears and only one person in the land knew his secret – his barber, Manji. Manji knew that if he let the secret out, he would lose his head.

One day Manji could bear the secret no longer. He went into the countryside and when he came to a forest, he went into the forest and told the secret to a tree. ‘The Rajah has big ears,’ he whispered. Then he felt much better. But he did not know that, the very next day, a woodcutter came and chopped down the tree and sold it to a place where people made musical instruments. There it was made into flutes, tambourines and drums which, as it happens, were bought by the Rajah’s musicians. It was going to be the Rajah’s birthday and they wanted new instruments to play at his party.

When the birthday party arrived, the Rajah ordered his musicians to start. The flutes began and this is what they sang: ‘The Rajah’s got big ears.’ Then the drums took up the song: ‘Who told you? Who told you?’ The tambourines replied: ‘The barber told us. The barber told us.’

When he heard what the instruments said, the Rajah was extremely angry. He  called for his barber and said he must die. But his barber protested that he’d told no-one the secret. He’d only told it to a tree. And surely trees cannot talk? When the barber took the Rajah to show the Rajah the tree, it was nothing but a stump. It was no longer there. Luckily, the woodcutter then appeared on the scene and explained what he’d  done with the wood. When the Rajah realised what had happened, he began to laugh and, as he laughed, he realised that, now that his secret was out, there was no point in him wearing a cap any longer. When he took it off, he discovered that no-one around him laughed. He was a much-loved Rajah and no-one minded his big ears.

From then on, the Rajah did not bother to wear a cap. And neither did anyone else – except for once a year on the Rajah’s birthday when everyone wore a cap for just one day to celebrate the story of what had happened.

And what about the way that you tell it? 

p10203171. If you pause when you get to the bit about there being only one person who knew the Rajah’s secre,  the children will start guessing who that is. His mother? No, alas, his mother was dead. The servant who helped him dress? No, the Rajah insisted on dressing himself. His wife? No, he wasn’t married. And so it goes on until either someone guesses or you reveal who it was.

2. When you get to the crucial part about the barber telling the secret to the tree, you can make the barber whisper  it several times over. That way, the children get a chance to join in with the whispering.

3. The musical instruments’ song can be varied in pitch and tone as each of the instruments joins in. You can also use actions to imitate how the instruments are played. Repeating the song several times over increases the fun.

4. When, finally,  the Rajah laughs and takes off his cap, there’s a chance for merriment and discussion. 

5.  In what ways are we all different? Is it a problem if someone has big ears?  

PS. My pictures this week are of some of the ‘instruments’ I bring out of my bag when storytelling. The top photo is of something I call my sea-tray. This is a large tray made of reeds in which I place a bagful of stones. When I swish the stones around, they make a sound like the sea. I usually say that the sea-tray can take you back or forward in time or far away across the seas -in this case,  even to India! The second photo is of a little African hand-drum which is twisted rapidly from side to side so the little pieces of wood hanging from it make a rapping sound as they strike the skin of the drum. The bottom photo is of my bull-roarer. It’s simply a closed cardboard tube with a steel tube for a tail. It roars magnificently when the tail is shaken.  

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3 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Big Ears”

  1. Meg Says:

    Marvellous comparison of versions, Mary.
    I didn’t know there were Irish and Welsh versions, though I might have guessed. I do like your ideas for creating sound effects. I have never been that good at playing things during telling.
    I did tell an Indian version of The King has donkey ears, once, and divided the audience into the three instruments and got each section to sing their part. Ended up a bit of a shambles and I’ve never told it again! Come to think of it, there were 350 kids in the audience … Its a good story worth retelling.
    Thankyou for so generously sharing your story knowledge. I learn a lot. Its always inspiring to read your posts.
    Best Regards, Meg

  2. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Dear Meg, It’s just great knowing you’re reading these blogs of mine and receiving your always thoughtful comments. They make me realise how much must have in common. So good to hear about your experiences. All the best, Mary

  3. Swati Kakodkar Says:

    This is a story that was told to me by my mother in my childhood. It was of course told in my mother tongue Konkani. Every time we children listened to this story we would burst out into giggles. I relived my childhood memories, thanks to this story. Very grateful to you Mary for sharing some simply outstanding stories on your blog. Looking forward to many many more.
    What is also great is the discipline with which you write. That is very inspiring!

    All the best.
    Fond wishes,

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