Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ What’s new? What’s true?

P1070490Last week I asked this question: What did Iron-Age people have? Karen’s response was: ‘They’d have had each other.’ The elements were what  had been in my mind – earth, air, fire, water. With characteristic insight, Karen thought about the people. Her response has been helping me think through one of the issues that arose from my training day at Castell Henllys on Monday.

What’s your stance?

Here’s the problem. As at many historical sites across the country these days, Castell Henllys staff are often in role and in costume, playing the part of someone who might have lived and worked in that place at the time when it was created.  Cook, blacksmith or whatever, a lot of their job is to tell the historical story (as much as we know it today). But can the telling and imagining of history be mixed up with the sorts of tales that storytellers include in what they tell?

Personally, I’d have some big concerns. Certainly you’d have to get your stance right. Folktales, legends, myths, stories of witchcraft and magic? Such stories as have come into our knowledge today in most cases come from periods much later than the Iron-Age. OK, you could say to your audience: ‘I’m the blacksmith. And you know there are lots of stories about blacksmiths. Here’s one of them.’ But I still think that if you’re in role, you’d have to be very careful about the ‘time’ of the story. It’s no good if the people in it feel like modern folk. And what if a listener enquires, ‘Where did you get that story?’ You can’t say you got it from a book. (There were no books.) Nor can you necessarily imply you heard it from someone who’d travelled. As an Iron-Age person would you have known persons who’d travelled?

Are you telling the truth?

P1070471An aspect of the same problem came up in what unfortunately had to remain a very brief conversation with someone who leads local-history walks. On a recent occasion when this person told a story in the course of his talk, he was loudly accused by one of his listeners of telling lies. Truth and lies? Stories and lies? As storytellers, even if we’re working to some kind of script, we have to get our positioning right. If it’s a story, we have to somehow make clear it’s a story. We may also have to communicate how we got it. Did we hear it? Did we make it up?

Thinking about all this has proved productive for me. It set me off on trying to create some stories I feel could have been heard and retold by someone living in an Iron-Age village some 2,500 years ago. Thanks to Karen, they are simply stories about people’s responses to each other in the kind of situations that might have occurred. One is about a tiny child getting its feet very badly burned on the hot stones around the cook’s fire and how its parents and other villagers coped. The other is about a wild-looking, wild-behaving young man who barges into the village demanding food and turns out to have been surviving on his own for months after losing everyone he knew when all the people in his own small village were wiped out by illness.

What we storytellers say is so true. You can only tell what feels right to you. Yet it’s also true that it only works if it also feels right to your listeners.

P.S.  Foxgloves are so good this year, they have to be my photos this week. Besides, isn’t it quite something to think, as my husband did this morning, of a fox donning a pair of extremely soft gloves, then elegantly padding off on its way? Or would it be two pairs? And where’s that fox  headed and why? I’ll leave those questions with you?  

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