Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Memory, remembering and memorizing

Thought-provoking thoughts about memory and memorizing came from a blog reader, Peter, this week in a comment he sent on a blog I’d written back in July, 2013 (for of course you can go back to previous posts in the archive).  Replying, I made the point that memorizing the words of a story is not something I do as a storyteller. Yes, there was once a Russian story about an egg that came in the form of a poem. I remember learning that by heart. And of course some stories include a phrase or a rhyme that needs to be remembered word for word. Otherwise, memorizing is no longer much part of my life.

Memorizing: the weekly task

Yet Peter’s comment made me think about the huge amount of exact memorizing I used to do as a child. In Fishguard Primary school, we all had to learn two poems each week, one Welsh, one English. Each week, our teacher would test us on them. Then every now and again, our horrible headmaster would arrive in our classroom, call someone out front with their exercise book in which were written the poems we’d learned, select one poem from the many and then ask the poor child to speak it. What a bullying thing to do!

But I was good at that stuff. I also used to learn screeds of Bible verses for Sunday School. Since those long-ago times, whatever has become of my memorizing talent?  I know its disappearance is far from unique to me. I read that Kate Roberts, the great Welsh novelist of the 20th century, had exactly the same thing happen to her. I also remember the wonderful Eileen Colwell,  pioneer of the British storytelling revival, describing the exact same thing of herself. When she was young, evidently, she learned the whole of a Dickens short story off by heart, word for word. It became one of the stories she used to tell. Later in life – and she lived to 98 – she was still remembering stories but if she ever wanted to say a poem she knew, she’d have to learn it afresh for the occasion.

Reflecting about the many ways in which memory and memorizing differ, it bore in upon me how essential an exactness of memory can be in particular circumstances. Just think about actors!  Then I remembered a famous Welsh folktale. You may well know it – or one of the other versions of it that exist.

Remembering: a Welsh folk-tale

A drover from South Wales came to London. After delivering the animals he’d brought, he was walking across London Bridge when he was suddenly accosted by a man who demanded to know where he’d found the drover’s stick he was carrying. When the drover told the stranger about the hazel tree near his home from which he’d cut his stick,  the man insisted that the drover take him there. He said it would be well worth his while.

When they reached the hazel tree, the stranger lifted the spade he’d brought and began to dig. A tunnel quickly revealed itself and the stranger pulled the drover into it with him. Below was a kind of cave and, in its shadows, the drover saw a number of huge men in armour lying on the ground asleep. Knights of old they seemed to be. Among them was one who was clearly a king and before him on the ground was a great heap of golden coins.

The drover was handed a sack by the man who’d brought him to the cave and told that he could fill it from the heap of golden coins. Then he could take it away and use the gold as he wished. Besides, at any time in the future that he wished, he could come back to the cave to get more gold coins. But if ever he did return and the knights in the cave showed signs of waking, he must quickly urge them to go back to sleep. ‘No,’ he must say, ‘return to your slumbers for Wales has no need of you yet.’ Indeed, even as they talked, that exact thing happened. The soldiers and the king began to wake but at the sound of those words being spoken, they settled back into their sleep.

Well, it had to happen, didn’t it? Some years later, the drover decided to go back to the cave for by then he’d used all the riches he’d gained. Would the hazel tree still be there? Would he succeed in finding the tunnel and the cave below?

Everything was as it had been before. But as the drover began filling the sack he’d brought, he noticed that the king and his men were beginning to stir. Now he knew he must say those words he’d been given. But what were they exactly? He couldn’t remember and whatever were the words he called out in his panic, they were self-evidently not the right ones. For the king and his knights rose up from their sleep and beat him and bundled him out of the tunnel. When the drover came to himself on the hard ground outside, he was bruised and sore and defeated. Nor was he ever able to find that hazel tree again.

When a hitch of memory happens:

So that’s the story that came to my mind as I pondered the issues of memory and memorizing. It’s just one of a number of King Arthur stories on exactly the same theme. One way in which its different versions vary is in regard to where precisely the sleeping King Arthur can be found. Near you? Near me?

The story makes a magic of the landscape. It’s one of the reasons I like it a lot. But what struck me in particular the other day when it came back to mind is that I couldn’t – still can’t! – remember exactly what words the drover was supposed to say. And since I’m down in Wales at present, I can’t look up the book in my London study from which I first learned the story. So I fear the words I’ve attributed to the man who takes the drover to the cave will have to do for today. I’ve tried to assuage my anxiety that they’re probably not quite right with the thought that the words as I learned from that book could only be whatever some storywriter of the past then decided upon.

PS: In the absence of gold coins, photos are of golden flowers. Besides, they’re prettier and they smell nicer.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Storytelling Starters ~ Memory, remembering and memorizing”

  1. Meg Says:

    Hi Mary. Thanks for another encouraging post.
    I went looking for the story… ended up spending a pleasant Sunday afternoon rereading Alan Garner’s stories. How I love his way with words, the rhymes and chants. Have always wanted to tell his “Belanay of the Lake” and “Alice of Lea” from his Bag of Moonshine collection, but I’m sure I wouldn’t get all the words right. He rewrites folktales so poetically. Has such a clear voice.
    In the Preface of his Collected Folktales (2011) he talks about how folktales address the ear and not the eye …that the real meaning is in the music; it is in the language: not phonetics, grammar or syntax, but pitch and cadence, and the colour of the word.”
    Oh!Found the Sleeping Warriors story online! The words to say if the warriors wake and ask ” Is it day?” are “No, sleep thou on!”
    Cheers Meg

Leave a Reply