Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ From nature and awareness

What a beautiful singer! Watching the Cardiff Singer of the World competition on TV on Thursday evening this week, Mingjie Lei was obviously going to be the clear winner of the Song Prize. He sang in such an unforced way, giving time and space and feeling to the words and emotions of his songs. His performances put me in mind of the kind of storytelling I like best.

The storytelling I like best can’t be described as entirely natural. And yet natural it is. For wherever it has reached, it has resulted from a combination of awareness and study but also continues to derive from a natural love of the medium.

A Natural Art:

Thinking about Mingjie Lei’s performance made me think about where storytelling comes from in a person. I recalled Eileen Colwell, pioneer of library storytelling in this coutry, describing to me in her great old age how, as a child, she’d tell stories to her playmates in the school playground. Or Amos Oz, the Jewish writer, describing in his fascinating autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness, how as a child he began watching people in parks and libraries and other public places and making up stories of their life. ‘Pickpocketing’ is the word he gives it. It means focusing on what he could see and observe and then weaving a web of story around that.

A Central Story:

Then I thought about what became one of the central stories in my own storytelling life. I came across it one Christmas time years ago when we had our foster sons. I went to a bookshop in Covent Garden which had a basement floor full of the most fascinating objects from other lands. Here, I thought, I could find some good stocking-fillers. Instead what I found, lying open on a table in the ground-floor bookshop, was a story entitled The First Storyteller. Like Mingjie Lei, my much-admired singer of this week, the story was from China.

The First Storyteller:

The first storyteller was born blind. Deemed unworthy to be his heir by his father, the Emperor of China, he was cast out as a baby. But in the forest where he was left, he was warmed and fed by the creatures of the forest and grew into a thriving young man who continued to live in the forest, knowing and learning its stories, until the day he was met on the edge of the forest by a man from a nearby village. Carrying and playing the pipa, a lovely stringed instrument that had been handed down to him by the gods above, he was taken by the villager to that nearby village and it was there that he started hearing stories.

The blind young man kept hearing stories and, as he began to travel, moving from village to village to town, he began telling these stories to others. This continued until the day when the Emperor of China, hearing of his fame as a storyteller, called for him to be brought to the court. There, the Emperor asked to hear a story. Then the Emperor asked for another and another until, at last, he paused and asked the storyteller: ‘But what is your story?’

So the Emperor heard how the blind young storyteller before him had been cast out as a baby because he was thought unworthy to be the Emperor’s son. But now, recognising who this young man must be and realising that he knew more of his kingdom than he did, the Emperor sought his son’s forgiveness for casting him out and asked that he come to the court to assume his rightful position. The storyteller refused to do this. Expressing gladness to be known, he nevertheless said he must stay where he now lived – among the people, hearing and retelling their stories.

So the blind young storyteller walked out of the Emperor’s court onto the roads where he continued to spend his life doing what he loved and needed to do. As I like to believe and to say, he is still there. For he is me and he is you and he is all of us who have stories and care to tell them.

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