Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ What works, what does not

P1070774How did it go? Most storytellers, I guess, look back at any event they’ve been involved with, formal or informal, and consider if it lived up to how they’d have liked it to be. For me, that process happened twice yesterday. The morning held a long interview on Skype with a storyteller in Bangalore in India. I’ve never been a great aficionado of Skype but this conversation was really magic. My interviewer’s list of questions was very much to the point and during it, she asked what advice I’d have for a new storyteller. My answer included what long ago became a motto I gave to myself: forgive yourself if you feel your storytelling didn’t go as well as you’d have hoped. There is always a next time and you have to learn from your mistakes.

The afternoon involved the birthday party I spoke briefly about in last week’s blog.  In the event, 14 girls turned up, one or two of them rather quiet, the rest of them very excited. An initial activity involved them thinking up a magic power, a magic food and a magic creature. Then it was over to the storytelling. After a name game to help all  feel included and an introductory story about a frog that happily made them all laugh, we went immediately into that story from Grimms’ Other Tales, the story of Catharinella.  The children settled into it quickly, though I realised from the looks on one or two faces that even at 7 years old, the idea of an ogre that might eat you up can feel a tad alarming. Where necessary, you have to go easy.  Then as we went on, I felt really glad that, in my advance preparations, I’d  become aware of some unresolved features in the story as written. My thoughts about how to resolve them proved very productive and that felt nice.

The story in brief:

Catharinella is captured by the ogre because she’s been stealing from his parsley patch. When he tells her she must either come and work for him or he’ll eat her up (WORK, WORK,WORK, my listeners  spontaneously began chanting at this point), she chooses the work and goes with the ogre. The ogre who is little, fat and lazy gives her a room in the castle but what the story as written in Grimm’s Other Tales does not tell us at this point is that she has obviously been allowed to bring three things with her: her comb, her brush and her mirror. Why will become apparent later.

Catharinella is bored in the ogre’s castle. All she has to do each day is go to the window of her room when the ogre comes home and let down her long plaits so he can climb up them into his castle. (‘It’s like Rumpelstiltskin,’ my listeners observe.) Because she’s so bored, Catharinella decides to leave her room and start exploring the castle when the ogre is out. That’s when things suddenly change.

P1070777Catharinella bumps into a boy while exploring. We never learn from the story as written how this boy has come to be in the castle but while I was preparing the story (and because the birthday girl of the party likes wizards) I decided to make him into a wizard-in-training who has wheedled his way into a job at the castle in order to be able to learn its secrets. I feel sure I am on sure ground about this because, when they meet and discuss escaping together, he tells Catharinella that they must be careful because all the pieces of furniture in the castle are magic. They can all talk. How does he know this?

Well, I further decided that, obviously, the job he’d been doing for the ogre was keeping the furniture polished. Confirmation that he must also be a wizard comes when he assures Catharinella that, if she goes along with the idea of escaping, he’ll summon up a coach and horses to take them away. But Catharinella is also clever. She now comes up with a strategy. If they feed the furniture a lot of food (after all, if each piece of furniture can talk, it probably does have a mouth), it will all go to sleep. This is what happens to people when they’ve eaten too much. And if the furniture all goes to sleep, it  won’t be able to blab about the escape when the ogre comes home.

All goes to plan. Catharinella and the boy cook loads of spaghetti, they call all the pieces of furniture in the castle to the kitchen, feed the spaghetti to them and after they’ve eaten their fill, they all fall asleep and start snoring. By  this point, the boy has opened a window, Catharinella and he have jumped out and – ABRACADABRA – there’s the coach and horses.

Unfortunately, one item of household equipment – an old broomstick up in the attic – is fast asleep when the above all happens. By the time it is awoken by the loud sounds of snoring, it is too late. It totters downstairs, all the spaghetti is gone and as the ogre comes home, it is already crying out: ‘They’ve all been eating spaghetti but they’ve forgotten me.’ Realising at once what has happened, the ogre jumps out of his castle and, enraged into running, starts the chase. He’s almost caught up with the coach and horses when Catharinella looks out of the coach window and sees him.

And what does she do? She throws out her comb (which, along with her other items of hair equipment, she must carefully have put in her pocket before the escape). And what does it turn into? A high iron fence with nasty sharp spikes on the top. And what does the ogre do? He succeeds in climbing over the fence.

The coach and horses career on. Again the ogre nearly catches up but Catharinella is now on the alert. She throws out her brush and it turns into a huge great thorn bush with extremely long sharp thorns. The ogre succeeds in climbing over.

The coach and horses run on. Once more the ogre is about to catch them when Catharinella throws out her mirror. It turns into a glittering lake. And the happy end of this story is that the ogre cannot swim. So that’s the end of the ogre. And that’s the end of the story too …

But when all is said and done …

P1070779… it’s very fascinating to wonder how Catharinella’s comb, brush and mirror acquired the magic powers they demonstrated when the ogre was on the chase.  The story as written never describes it, but  it makes sense that they were the things she’d chosen to take to the castle: she needed them to look after her very long hair. It also makes sense that she had them in her pocket when she and the boy from the castle escaped, though again the story as written does not tell us this.  But how did those objects acquire their magic? Well, the 7-year old girls at yesterday’s party came up with some very good answers. One suggested that the boy transferred some of his magic to them when he and Catharinella were escaping. Another suggestion I really liked was that because all the furniture in the castle was magic, magic must have seeped up into the comb, brush and mirror from the table on which Catharinella must have placed them in her room in the ogre’s castle.  

So there we are. The story went down well. I was pleased. I was pleased too by the way the children joined in a song after the end of the story (it was a Welsh song of dreaming, translated into English by me).  Lovely too were some spontaneous tellings of true stories that happened afterwards while the children were sitting eating. At that point, I felt the children needed some moments of peace. So, because someone had mentioned a mouse, I quietly started to tell them my true story of the mouse I once found on my bed. Then, even better, two other adults who’d joined us  followed my mouse tale with their own mouse stories. Brilliant.

My motto:

What had not been good was the storymaking time we’d planned to happen between my Catharinella story and the song. The story bags that had been prepared as a basis were magic: the children loved finding the couple of little characters that were in each along with a couple of magic-type objects. But this wasn’t a schoolroom. It was a party. I was the only adult that could be present at this point (the others were busy preparing supper) and mostly the children were far too excited and noisy by now to concentrate on anything at all, let alone making up stories.

Well, you win some, you lose some. On my way home later, I remembered my own motto that I’d quoted in my Skype session with Bangalore that morning. Forgive yourself if things don’t go as well as you would have liked. You have to learn from your own mistakes.

You also have to learn to fully appreciate it when things go well.  I felt especially aware of the sense of connection as my interviewer on Skype yesterday morning responded yo a question from me by telling me how she’d got into storytelling. It had started when, inspired by seeing storytelling in a library they used to visit during a spell in America, she’d started telling stories to her then very small son. Back in India, she’d continued and soon some neighbours’ children were coming to join them. Before long she was being encouraged to do this storytelling on a more formal basis and for some time now, she has been telling stories twice a week to groups of children in a community venue. Then two years ago, she decided to extend herself further by signing up for a storytelling course on which there are about 20 students, all studying with a fine storytelling teacher. She is now preparing her final dissertation. Hence the interview.

How engaging the storytelling world can be! At the start of the interview, I’d said how wonderful it felt to be talking with a storyteller in India since, from my perspective, India is one of the homes of storytelling. By the end of the interview, I felt even more intrigued and delighted to be hearing that my questioner feels part of what she describes as a Revival of Storytelling in Bangalore.

I think it is something the whole world needs right now – a reawakening to the mutual understanding and pleasures of sharing that storytelling can give. 

PS: Please forgive me, I’ve got no idea how to take a photo of a mirror that does not show something of me.  

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